In May 2017, swimmer Bonnie Radcliffe set out to swim one hundred swims in one hundred different places. One rule applies – each swim must be outdoors. Now just over a quarter of the way through her personal challenge, she reflects on her swimming so far.
I have always been a water baby, longing for the light fluidity that fills your body when you float. The water wakes me up and cleans me out. I have done the Great North Swim and the Bosphorus Cross-Continental crossing. To take on something that you don’t think you can do and then to prove that you can is the greatest high. And so, I wanted to do something else, something more – something that would feel like a progression. I have a family history of dementia and I wanted to do something to raise money for a charity working with this annihilating disease. The calm and clarity of wild swimming is almost meditative in its effect on the mind. I wanted to find a challenge that felt personal and that took me on a journey – one to understanding my brain and body better. One that would build happy memories to hold onto.
“The calm and clarity of wild swimming is almost meditative in its effect on the mind. I wanted to find a challenge that felt personal and that took me on a journey – one to understanding my brain and body better.”
For me, swimming has never been about sports achievement. I don’t go too fast or too far. A big distance swim wasn’t what I felt I needed now, to push myself to get faster, go longer, to endure. For me, swimming has always been about the relationship with the water, taking the time to feel it move around me, to watch the reflections form then shatter, rather than the race of it. I wanted to find new places and new experiences. New swims where I could marvel at the water and the sky and discover my relationship with the natural world anew. Anywhere counts – lido, or ocean, river or lake – as long as it marries water and sky. The challenge is to stick with it, not to write it off either as impossible or as not big enough. I have no time limit and I don’t need to complete a certain distance each time. I just need to show up. I hoped, when I started, that this mission would teach me to be brave and curious again.
A big part of my challenge was the accompanying blog I committed to. When I complete a swim in a new place, I log it and I write about what made it memorable. I try to pinpoint what made it different to the others, whether that’s the way I felt, or what the weather did, the temperament of the sea or the topography of the shore. Knowing that I’m doing this swim-diary reminds me to take photographs. Now, on swim 26, I can look back at all the places I’ve been. The images and the words take me back in time and the collective experiences stack up to fill each new swim with the delicious knowledge of all the ones that have gone before.
“I try to pinpoint what made it different to the others, whether that’s the way I felt, or what the weather did, the temperament of the sea or the topography of the shore.”
When I set out to swim it nags at me, at the back of my brain, because I’m afraid of the possibility that I won’t do it. All those excuses tumble up and out – it’s too cold, I don’t feel well, I don’t have all the right kit. But it’s worth it, every time. Sometimes I’m only in for ten minutes before I’m back on the shore, but each time I’m like a spring-cleaned version of myself. It has taught me that I can do it If I want to. Taught me that the water doesn’t care if I’ve been in it every week or not for three months. It is still there, still renewing and shattering, roiling and placid, blue and grey and green, no matter what I do. It is so much bigger than me and it can give me so much, if I just have the courage to let it. It has opened up new places, parts of the coastline that I’ve never visited before and tiny community lidos I didn’t know existed. When you explore with a purpose you see how astonishingly the natural landscape can change, sometimes within just a few miles. I have learnt that, even if I spend longer changing than I do in the water, it is worth it. Each dip is like a miniature holiday, a flat-line and jump-start for the mind.
I tend to be a solitary swimmer. I often have company on the bank waiting with a towel, but in the water, I am alone. And so, it becomes about knowing and trusting your own judgement, respecting the water, keeping safe and strong. I do know that motivating yourself when it’s just you is harder, and maybe in the future the community that open water swimming offers is something that I will seek out. But for now, on this journey which is so personal, it’s a huge part of it that I’m managing independently. To be in the shock of cold water always reminds me how small we are, as humans, in comparison to the huge wild world. What is most interesting is the emotional journey – the build-up, the plunge, the re-set. Every time is different, even if I’ve gone to the same place. Sometimes the connection with the moment is almost hallucinogenic.
“Every time is different, even if I’ve gone to the same place. Sometimes the connection with the moment is almost hallucinogenic.”
Looking back over the swims, the sensations tumble over one another to be remembered. One night at Hengistbury Head in Dorset, I plunged into a shallow, wave-filled sea beneath a sky that looked for all the world like an artist had struck scarlet across it with his brush. Swimming toward it, I barely noticed anything else, until I turned my head from a wave and saw, behind me, a low orchid of a moon, bigger than any I’d seen before, sitting on the sea before rising. It was so bright, with a cold blue light, that it seemed unnatural. One way, the sky and water were alive with fiery shades and the other with the stark white of the moon. Each view was so utterly different I didn’t know where to look.
On the Isle of Mull I swam in Calgary Bay in water so clear it was like cut crystal. I could see my reflection riding over the sand many feet below me. The water was deeply tied to the weather and the sun was displaying its power by shuttling behind clouds then out again. As it went in, the seascape was dulled to a flat and steady green, the huge cliffs like a U-shape at the back of the bay, the sky still retaining its picture-book blue. But when the sun came out it dazzled everything so bright that it forced out an audible gasp. The water held a hundred colours in its mirror points – turquoise, emerald, aquamarine, pure white that refracted into every colour conceivable. The sand was so pale it was blinding. It looked like the Caribbean but infinitely better, for the water had the pins-and-needles cold that lets you know exactly where your body ends and the world begins.
Looking back, it’s not the organised swims I’ve done that stand out. It’s the moments when I find a new place alone – one that I hunted down and made myself plunge into. It’s when nothing is arranged for you and everything is up to you. Self-sufficiency. An exploration of just what your body and mind can achieve. with almost three quarters of the challenge still ahead, I will continue on, finding more places to adventure and more ways to get wet. I aim to get to a hundred and to keep the same curious and engaged mind.
When I reach a hundred, I don’t intend to stop. I always want to be searching. But I also know I will want to find a new challenge too. In the middle of this one, I don’t yet know what the next will be, but it will surely be a personal one. Maybe a challenge of my own making and maybe not. Maybe I’ll go further this time, tackle the distance. Or follow a geographical journey, one river or one long sought-after destination. I don’t know. But I know I will strive to keep an open mind and constantly overcome the fear of “I can’t.”