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Lockdown drove Swansea mum to swim Channel


A Swansea mum has swum the English Channel after braving the elements for the first time during lockdown.

Sophie Smith had never been open water swimming before the pandemic, but has now completed the gruelling challenge, winning the Channel Swimming Association’s 2021 trophy for the Greatest  Feat of Endurance as part of the five-strong female relay team.

During lockdown Sophie and her two children, Zag (13) and Dil (8), were totally isolated. A keen swimmer, she found that not being able to be in the water, with pools shut and travel banned, was having a negative effect on her physical and mental wellbeing.

Following the easing of travel restrictions, the family took to the beach where Sophie saw the benefits of cold water immersion immediately. Less than a year later, she was stepping on French soil after completing the challenge of a lifetime.

Sophie said: “I’ve always held back as I felt I was not good enough because I am not a fast swimmer and wasn’t good at swimming galas as a child. With open water swimming, it’s been quite liberating, everyone is really open to all abilities and it is such a friendly community.

“I am still not sure it has sunk in. I tend to play things down and I feel if I can do this it’s not that special. It’s a personal thing for me. I think it is 80% mental – where there is a will there’s a way.”

Seeing the benefits and the mindfulness the open water gave her, Sophie decided to invest in a wetsuit and was invited along to a sea swim with Swansea Sharks to meet others and ensure she was safe. She continued to swim through the winter months, as well as braving the elements to dip in just a swimming costume and hat with her friend Sian Williams.

In the Spring of 2021 Sophie saw the English Channel challenge advertised on Facebook by Jane Hitchman, an open water swimming coach from the Midlands, who is originally from Wales, who was looking to put together a team.

Sophie decided to respond and find out more, and there was no looking back from that point onwards. The five strangers who formed the “Cinq au Swim” team, all class themselves as normal women with normal lives.

These team from all around the UK consisted of Sophie, Emma Carter-Biggs, Justine Ledwith, Liesl Norris and Phoebe Crichlow. Training was taken up a notch, Sophie always ensured she stayed safe, never swimming alone, whilst turning her cold waters dips into swims to get ready for what lay ahead.

The team completed their test swim – which entailed swimming for two hours in just a swimming costume in a temperature of 10.5 degrees celcuis and were set for the challenge, but Sophie started to doubt herself and her ability as the time neared. The date was set for the end of June, however, unpredictable weather conditions in the channel meant a postponement to July.

After much anticipation and nail biting on the “Dovercoaster” the much awaited day arrived, but  unfortunately the conditions changed after the team began. The team endured worsening weather conditions resulting in exhaustion and debilitating sea sickness. The Pilot of the Sea Leopard, Stuart Gleeson commented that the tides and weather were really against them and they came close to stopping.

Sophie was overwhelmed by the support of people  tracking their progress and donating over a thousand pounds for charity. The overwhelming support  spurred her on, despite the conditions preventing them from seeing where they were going.

Sophie added: “Whatever is on your mind when you go to the water, there is an energy exchange and negative feelings wash away. You can immerse yourself in a different environment and have half an hour of being in a different world.

“For anybody looking into swimming, Sophie’s advice would be do your research, be aware on the beach for any rips, the weather conditions, the tides etc. Never swim alone, be careful and be safe but, above all, go for it!”

Sophie has already completed a six-hour swim since and is looking into her next big solo challenge. She is keen to keep going, enjoying her cold water dipping, open water swimming and is really interested in exploratory swims. 

Swim Wales CEO, Fergus Feeney said: “This achievement is truly remarkable. We recently heard about Sophie’s trophy and cross channel swim, and we were amazed to hear that she had never been Open Water Swimming before the Pandemic, she is clearly a very focused individual. Sophie joins tens of thousands of people in Wales that have taken to Open Water swimming this year, as lockdown forced people to look for alternative solutions to exercise as pools closed. By doing so, many people like Sophie, experienced the significant mental health benefits and the mindfulness that water gives you.”

Matt Pearce, Hafal’s Head of Communications at mental health charity Hafal, said: “Sophie’s story is such a brilliant example of how swimming can being mental health benefits as well as physical health benefits. It’s such a mindful activity: as Sophie says, it takes you out of your life and focuses you completely on the activity at hand, as well as getting your heart pumping and releasing all of those endorphins! And what’s great about Sophie’s experience is that it led to such an amazing achievement, which again is such a great boost for wellbeing.”

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If you want to take the next step in your open water swimming journey why not enter the Swim Wales Open Water Challenge Series? Find out more here:

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