The world of swimming has changed hugely since the inception of the Outdoor Swimming Society in 2006. Where once we were outliers, now our message – that swimming is better under an open sky – is widely embraced and embedded. At the team AGM, thirteen of the core team gathered in Somerset, travelling in from Scotland and Switzerland, to discuss what 2018 has been, what 2019 may bring, and where we want to take swimming next.
We want a world where people put their togs into their work bags just as readily as their trainers, and a climate where privately-owned open spaces are as open to swimmers as they are to walkers and climbers. We want it to be both cool and universal. We want a world where teenage boys think about water depth and know about cold shock. And where doing it only defines your spirit, not your demographic.
The Outdoor Swimming Society was established in 2006 with 300 members, the accidental offshoot of a charity swim called Breastrokes, a one-mile swim for breast cancer that took place in Windermere and the Serpentine. Since then the OSS has grown to a worldwide collective with around 70,000 followers across our various channels (see end). Our mission is the same as it ever was – to share the freedom, joy and adventure of swimming – but the places that mission is now leading us are brilliantly, radically different.
Where once people would point and stare when I swam, shouting ‘are you doing this for charity?’ from the riverbanks, now the tribe is so big it has subdivisions: wild swimming, open water swimming, marathon swimming, skinny dipping, winter swimming or swimming for your mental health, as an antidote to anxiety and depression. OSS regional reps have been replaced with tens of thriving local wild swimming groups all over the UK, with the original problem of ‘how do I find other swimmers in my area?’ being replaced with a new problem: ‘how do we cope with tens to hundreds of new members a day showing up for our swims over summer?’. One-off festive swims have been replaced with winter swimming and ice-mile swimming as a widespread ‘thing’, and while in 2006 the shutting of lidos seemed inexorable, now some are reopening, and others have strong enough tribes they’re saving themselves from being filled in with concrete by moving to a new community ownership.
At the start people wrote to me saying ‘thank you for giving me an identity! I used to be the crazy guy in the office who liked swimming in lakes, now I’m a wild swimmer’. Now the community and all it does (including scientific research and public health programmes) has proliferated and thrived. The wild swim map, a worldwide crowd-sourced map of where to swim, has gone from being an A1 poster that I took around to meets with paper and pins, asking people if they knew anywhere, to it’s own separate website, wildswim.com, with a million page views a year and 364,000 users, and 3000 swims so far. (For the statisticians among you, traffic to the OSS website is similar: once sustained by a very nice developer called Josh Holliday and a rotating cast of newsletters editors and me in our pyjamas (separate houses, before work), it is now created in very similar circumstances, but with a lot more volunteers, and a lot more readers – in the last 6 months alone the site has had 1.75 million page views, and 1/4 million users.)
Two more snapshots of history and then we’ll move on… In 2006 OSS Breaststrokes was the first open water swim event aimed at the nation: just it’s inception made it the news, with the 300 participants considered brave heroes. In 2006 people didn’t acclimatise for events by swimming outdoors, they came to our events in order to have their first (daring!) open water swim. Now there is a whole network of triathlon training lakes for just for this kind of training, and over 200 open water events on the UK calendar alone. The lakes we started in (with swimmers docking on an island in Windermere for a hot chocolate on the rocks) now host events that are huge: 10,000 attend the Great North Swim in Windermere, 6,000 the Serpentine Swim – and 10k swims are now firmly established as the swimming marathon, with the OSS’s own Dart10k (the first public 10k swim, about to celebrate it’s 10th birthday next summer) the watery version of the London Marathon.
So, the summary is – swimming outdoors is now really popular! (Woo hoo). Swimmers are now doing things on a daily basis people would have previously thought impossible – including swim around Britain (I’m thinking of our new ambassador, Ross Edgley).
The question ‘how can we get people into swimming?’ has been replaced with ‘where do we want to take swimming next?’
The first paradigm shift the OSS had to make was to convince people that swimming outdoors was a special experience – to overthrow the concept of it as dirty, dangerous or illegal, and reframe it as what it is – slightly magical.
The ‘we’ of the OSS changes regularly, with almost all posts voluntary. This year, 2018, has been a bumper year for new people coming on board with their talents, wanting to give something back to the community. So between that and our geographical spread (from Switzerland, Scotland, Wales, London and Somerset) this was the first time most of us had met face to face. Ten of the core team gathered in my house in Somerset, sleeping in vans in the driveway, the shed and every other available space, for two nights of dinner and hot tubs, and a day-long conversation in between in a local pub (joined there by a few more).
We discussed what we each of us and the OSS had done over the year, and where to go next. And also how we got to where we are now.
Outdoor swimming was easy to make into a movement, as it makes people evangelical
For years the job of The Outdoor Swimming Society – answering every press call that ever came, and getting out and about as much as possible, through our regional reps, speaker events and festivals such as the Big Chill and Port Eliot – was to promote open water, to talk about how lovely it was to swim, and dispel preconceptions that it was otherwise. It wasn’t just swimming we had to repackage, but also temperature, from ‘cold’ to ‘bracing’, which sounds much more thrilling (still stuck? Read 35 words for cold).
In photo after photo, description after description, and by an ever-increasing number of missionaries taking others by the hand (outdoor swimming was easy to make into a movement, as it makes people evangelical), we succeeded in getting people to believe us, that swimming outdoors really is an amazing experience. And to believe that, if you drop to the water level, things – including you and your mental and physical landscape – look different, and that is a good thing. (Our language is littered with cliches that indicate it has always been thus: we talk about going with the flow, cleansing ourselves of worries, floating above our troubles, immersing ourselves in an experience, washing away our troubles. One joy of being a swimmer (for me, anyway) is that all of this happens non verbally. I go for a swim and with no over thinking necessary, I come out chuffed.)
We want a world where people put their togs into their work bags just as readily as their trainers, and to a climate where privately-owned open spaces are as open to swimmers as they are to walkers and climbers
But having first made outdoor swimming special, the revelation of the day for me is that our job now is to make it normal. While having 70,000 followers and 250,000 annual website visitors is great, we want a world where there are a lot more zeroes than that. We want a world where people put their togs into their work bags just as readily as their trainers, and a climate where privately-owned open spaces are as open to swimmers as they are to walkers and climbers. We want it to be both cool (equal rights for school swimming champions and rugby captains) and universal. We want a world where teenage boys think about water depth and know about cold shock. And where doing it only defines your spirit, not your demographic.
Yes, swimming is a special experience, but we are not looking for a world where swimming is ‘special’, like only special people can do it. Everyone can do it. What swimming needs now is to lose all it’s prefixes – so it’s not ‘outdoor’ or ‘indoor’ or ‘open water’ or ‘wild’ – it’s just swimming.
Although the society is based in the UK, on all channels we draw a lot of traffic from the US, a chunk from Germany and Europe, and have active followers from Australia to Paris.
What swimming needs now is to lose all it’s prefixes – so it’s not ‘outdoor’ or ‘indoor’ or ‘open water’ or ‘wild’ – it’s just swimming.
And then, not having any presight that the revelation of the day would be that we should make swimming normal, we headed off to Farleigh, the oldest riverbank club in the country, for a torchlit swim.
With no foresight that the revelation of the day would be to make swimming normal, we headed off for a torchlit swim
Huge thanks to the OSS team members, past and present, who have made this journey possible. Most of our current OSS team members, who predominantly volunteer for the OSS, are on our team page. The OSS is always looking for new, enthusiastic people to join the team in a voluntary capacity (although right now we have reached the maximum number without having more senior leads to report into). We have various roles appearing in the New Year, including for an Instagram curator and a community writer. If you are interested in either of these roles, or joining the OSS team in a senior capacity, then please send an email with your skill set and what you are interesting in doing to firstname.lastname@example.org. If it’s some time till we get back to you – know we will when we can!
We are also currently hiring (actual jobs!) an OSS Executive Assistant and Events Manager. Applications sought by 9th December 2019.
Attending the meeting: Kate Rew (Founder), Kari Furre (Director), Oliver Pitt (Director, Facebook & Twitter), Calum Maclean (Ambassador), Alastair Humphries (Patron), Adrian Swimstaman (OSS Special Envoy), Owen Haeman (Inland Access), Beth Pearson (Commissioning Editor), Bonnie Radcliffe (Staff Writer), Rosy Eaton (Rivers Fit To Swim In lead), Chris Booth (Bug Wrangler, Wildswim), Tim Bridges (King of Logistics) and Morgan Jones (Executive Assistant).
Not attending, but still giving their time to the OSS community and working to better swimmers interests: Nathan Willmott (OSS Legal Advisor), Fiona Pettengale (Map Editor), Ella Foote (Press Officer & Ambassador), Robert Aspey (OSS Inland Access), Chris Dalton (OSS Inland Access), Imogen Radford (OSS Inland Access), Susanne Masters (Contributing Writer), Sara Barnes (Copy Editor), Peter Hancock (Australian Envoy).
Here’s to the wonderful year of swimming ahead!
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