10 things endurance swimming taught me about womanhood

For International Women's Day, endurance swimmer Dee Newell reflects on the lessons of marathon swimming

Dee Newell. Photo: Niall Meehan.

Dee Newell grew up close to Lough Corrib on the west coast of Ireland but preferred swimming at the Atlantic shores of Salthill from a young age. She was a competitive swimmer until her mid teens where she made a move to lifeguarding and swim teaching something she continues to this day. Alongside a military career with the Irish Defences Forces, Dee became a marathon swimmer in 2012 when she completed the 13km Galway Bay swim for the first time. 

In 2016, she swam it for a second time, as well as discovering ice swimming and completing her first 500m swim in waters below 5 degrees. 2019 was her most adventurous year to date: she swam the English channel solo; swam across the Irish Sea as part of a six person relay; and topped off the year with a short swim from Robben Island to Cape Town. In 2020, she completed an Ice Km swim in Antarctica. Here, she explains how endurance swimming profoundly changed her view on womanhood after a male-dominated military career.

  • International Women’s Day and I didn’t get off to a great start. We first crossed paths in 2012, while I was serving overseas with the Irish Defence Forces on a UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon. As the only female officer on this deployment, I  was ‘chosen’ to be a representative at the International Women’s Day celebration. I resented this, and saw it as a token effort in my chosen male-dominated career. For the majority of this career, I have fought to be the same as the men I work alongside and at all times convinced myself that there are and should not be any differences between us. I realise now just how wrong I have been.
  • My career is physical and requires strong leadership, so the default can be to rely on masculine traits. Comparing myself to highly athletic male role models has had a considerable effect on my confidence since I began training. This is where swimming has been my absolute saviour. I am exceptionally lucky to live in a country where women are the role models in open water. Rachael Lee holds the record for the fastest crossing of the English Channel by an Irish person. Alice Flood was the first person from my home county of Galway to successfully swim across the English Channel. Both of these women were so welcoming to me and gave their own time to help me, too, become a Channel swimmer in 2019.
  • In 2020, as the world began to stand still, I was in Antarctica feeling like I was reliving the moments I had read about in Lynne Cox’s book Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer.  As I sailed around this magical ice world, I was surrounded by awesome female swimmers who helped me through my first Ice Kilometre. But that personal achievement was not my highlight on this once-in-lifetime trip – that accolade goes to Cath Pendleton, who I supported to become the first human to swim an Ice Mile inside the Polar Antarctic Circle. To see a woman be so strong made me realise how equalising open water is. Even a brief look back on the overall history of endurance swimming shows that it is a sport where women can really excel – even on level terms with their male counterparts.
  • The trend began with Gertrude Ederle who set a record for fastest crossing of the English Channel when she completed it in 1926, and was most recently displayed by Jaimie Monahan. In 2017 she became the first person in the world to complete the Ice Sevens Challenge, which requires a swimmer to complete one mile in water under 5 degrees, once in each of the seven continents. I now know its much easier to dream a dream as a young girl if you see other women doing amazing things. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that I feel less hindered by being a woman as I grew up with Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese as Presidents of Ireland in those years where my sense of normal was being influenced.
  • In Ireland a lot of the local bathing spots still hold the names like ‘ladies beach’, the ‘ladies cove’, which have become place names but there are other locations such as the Forty Foot which still holds the sign “Gentlemen’s bathing place” – a sign unrelated to the place name, discreet enough to not be readily noticed but once you see it, you spot it every time you pass. I am most grateful to the ladies of the Forty Foot in Dublin who in 1974 invaded and reclaimed the right for women to swim at this iconic location and led the charge for swimmers like me to meet so many amazing women at this beautiful sunrise swim spot.
Dee Newell at Forty Foot
  • Despite all of what I’ve said above, our male counterparts regularly receive more media coverage of their open water feats and greater levels of sponsorship. For a lot of athletes sponsorship is the factor that will make some of these amazing challenges possible, so this is a limiting factor before you can even get to the start line. On a more localised level, for example, my local open water swim league will always plan the men’s race around tide and weather and the women’s race will be added on after all of the men are complete. They inevitably don’t wait around to support the women, while the women can’t avoid supporting them since they have had to report before the men’s race to register. These are minor issues that add up to significant inequality, and men and women need to challenge it. On the one hand women need to speak up about their achievements, and for themselves, but on the other, our community needs to support them more, so they feel confident they will be heard if they do speak up.
  • I wish all women could see that open water swimming is among the quickest ways to banish body confidence issues. If we were to remove all of the obstacles in place to women swimming – including those very  “Men’s only Bathing” locations of Ireland – self esteem and body confidence would be the next self-imposed barrier to enjoying the sea. In my experience, women can second guess getting into swimming, due to having to wear a tiny piece of figure-hugging material, especially during that time between dropping your towel and submerging into the sea. The big positive though, it that usually once you cross this bridge a few times, the sheer joy of being immersed in the ocean will far outweigh the worries about what people think of how your body looks. It used to be easy to find a quiet spot to get acquainted with the process, however with the growth in outdoor swimming, this is becoming ever more challenging.
  • What else needs to change? I am constantly jealous of the Lido scene in the UK. This is something we should have in Ireland but are only returning to now with the reopening of Clontarf baths and a hope for more tidal pools to return around the coast of Ireland. This is the type of infrastructure which can help all people get into swimming without that initial fear of the open water. Another  change which would require no funding at all is challenging the filter culture of social media. It is known that girls drop off from sport around the time they hit puberty and even more so in swimming, given that a swimsuit really leaves nowhere to hide for a girl coming to terms with how her body may be changing or not changing.
  • Last year rapidly transformed from a year of my own big swimming plans to a year of teaching and fundraising, and it kind of began with Buoys Club at the Forty Foot. Loads of my friends at the time were dippers there, and they’d hear of (and support) my Galway Bay swims and Channel swim and say they wish they could just be confident enough to swim out to the swim buoys. The buoys are about a 100m out from the safety of this sheltered cove, and in very deep water, with some strong currents at times, so not for the inexperienced open water swimmer. But I realised that many of these dippers were competent pool swimmers, they just needed a little help to push their boundaries in open water. So I started being a support swimmer for them. This group grew so rapidly that I needed to recruit more support swimmers! And what was interesting was that the vast majority of these people striving weekly to push their boundaries were women.
  • Many of the Buoys Club women went on to be part of the 35-strong group I led to complete the virtual Galway Bay swim. As solos and relays, they took to the water to swim 13 km throughout August, raising money for Cancer Care West. They also played a big role in my virtual Rise Foundation Big Dip in October, which raised €16,000 to provide therapy for families affected by addiction. Many again joined in my Movember challenge to swim 60km in November – which quickly extended to 100km! – and were among the 170 people taking part in #deeswimber in December, a challenge to dip 20 times which raised €25,000 for the Irish Cancer Society. Fundraising aside, Buoys Club has built a supportive community of women who love the sea and are happy to share that with others. I am proud to have given these women (and the few men) confidence in their abilities and passed on my knowledge of sea swimming and, above all, how important safety is.
Dee Newell