Susanne Masters is a swimmer, who writes about swims and wildlife, and is mapping ‘accessible swims’ on wildswim.com. Here she shares her project, and why she’s doing it
Water’s buoyancy can be so enabling by supporting a body’s weight even if limbs or other bits don’t work so well. The biggest barrier to outdoor swims can sometimes be getting in and out of the water. So I wanted to highlight outdoor swims that are more accessible – firstly to try and help people looking for accessible swims to find them, secondly to encourage awareness of and support for making more of our outdoor swims accessible.
Seeing swimmers at the Bosphorus intercontinental race marks the point at which I started to notice accessibility in the context of open water swimming.
I was shit-scared terrified waiting to jump in the Bosphorus. Plan A had been swimming the Intercontinental race with a friend. Plan B was swimming it by myself because my friend had missed the registration deadline. I had only swum in sheltered familiar bays by myself. My terror was fed by spending too much time with local marine conservationists who told me exactly what fishermen were catching in the area. A gaggle of people appeared on the floating dock where the race starts. Those in swimwear handed over crutches and prosthetics to fully dressed people who scurried off. One man all of whose limbs were attenuated did a little dance on his stumps, bowed to the applause and then hurled himself in. Someone with a missing leg executed a perfect dive into the water. A couple of people sat on the edge and lowered themselves in. At the time it gave me a dose of courage that I had been lacking. I thought if someone who is half my size due to their missing limbs can jump into a swim of several kilometres with enthusiasm how petty it made my allowing anxiety about deep water to infuse my experience of a legendary swim, which is safely completed by thousands of people each year.
After that I started noticing accessibility more. At a river pool in Gothenburg I saw a hoist making getting in the water easy for wheelchair users. The second time I went to Ichetucknee Head Spring a hoist had appeared next to the steps. The Paralympic and Invictus Games are raising the profile of sporting excellence and achievement that is not contingent on being able-bodied. Likewise enjoyment of outdoor swimming isn’t dependent on being able-bodied. Accessibility is the gatekeeper. Some of my friends joke about needing a care home by the sea where they will be taken for swims in their dotage. This is the reality; even if we are born able-bodied and evade all illness and injury that diminishes mobility the odds are that towards the end of our lives getting in and out of outdoor swims will become difficult.
My friend Cassy hasn’t been stopped from coming on outdoor swims by her prosthetic leg. We introduced her to the experience of afterglow at Lochan Uaine in the Cairngorms, pretty chilly water for someone who comes from Florida. Cassy sat on perfectly gnarled tree roots under a pine that conveniently form a seat to pop off her leg. She hopped in with support from us to balance her weight. Next time we will take one neoprene sock because hopping on little stones is pretty uncomfortable on a bare foot. Getting up to the Fairy Pools in Skye was a short but challenging walk uphill over uneven ground when one leg has to do most of the work. Cassy couldn’t get down to the pool with the underwater rock arch. But she could plunge into crystal clear water in a higher pool, where we had panoramic views of the Cuillin. Seduced by a beautiful spring run at Gilchrist Blue Springs in Florida we drifted all the way down to the Sante Fe River. At which point we realised swimming upstream against current would take longer than the time we had before sunset. So we shoved and pulled each other up on the boardwalk. Another friend and I nipped back to the start of our swim to pick up Cassy’s leg and a towel so that she could dry her stump before putting her leg back on. Cassy has had to work harder than me to reach some of our adventure swims. But once we are in the water it is just swimming.
Cassy has been a swimmer since childhood. She says, “Swimming was always an early love for me. Due to my physical disabilities and the amputation of my leg, it was a great outlet for exercise and play. Growing up in Florida, I had the good fortune of having a swimming pool at home that I used nearly year round. I started wild swims as a kid. In addition to our pool, I’d jump into a pond in our yard with neighborhood kids. We always kept those swims quick though as alligators took up residence in that pond from time to time! One of the funniest swim adventures I had was as a teenager at a water park in Florida. My best friend and I climbed up several flights of stairs to reach the tallest water slide in the park. The slide was a straight shot down. My friend went first, then I did, and then my leg came down solo! I had to take it off for the ride down because of fear it could come off and hurt me on the rapid descent down. It definitely surprised some onlookers.”
Cassy’s scuba diving has provided useful equipment for when we swim in currents – flippers. In Cassy’s words, “I discovered on one of my first open water dives in the Florida Keys that using just one flipper on my good leg wasn’t going to cut it. I was caught in a current and struggled to keep pace, eventually having to go to the sea floor to rest before continuing my swim. When I returned to my prosthetist, I asked him to help me find solution. He was able to use my existing stump cast mold to create a specialized socket that can slide into the flipper. With that addition and some Velcro straps around my thigh to hold the socket in place, I can now handle those currents with more ease.”
It is not enough to believe that outdoor swimming should be accessible, you have translate belief into action if you are going to put your money where your mouth is. Now I make a point of asking about accessibility and sharing accessibility information when I find cool places that are accessible. I wrote an article about swimming in Florida’s springs and specifically asked the editor to keep in a note about De Leon springs having a ramp and lift for wheelchair access. It is a little piece of information, which probably isn’t registered by 99.9% of the people who read that article, but is there for anyone who might need it. I remembered that at Vortex spring in Florida Cassy hadn’t needed help getting in and out of the water. She had taken off her leg, hopped along using a rail for support and lowered herself in off steps. I emailed the site owners to check what I remembered about reaching the water. They don’t have a hoist, but they are happy to drive people right to the water’s edge in their golf cart. I started to put these swims on wildswim.com in a collection. On each of these is a little note explaining how it is accessible. Some places are not designed with accessibility in mind but have features that are helpful e.g. steps and a handrail into the water. Poole in Dorset has 5 beach wheelchairs, 3 of which can be used in the sea. Sea worthy wheelchairs make it possible to sit in the water, or enter seated on the wheelchair and float off for a swim. Although it needs a spare person to stash the wheelchair on the beach where it can’t drift off while you are swimming.
Accessibility is different for different people. Some people can manage getting out of a wheelchair and dragging their butt over sand to reach water. Others might prefer to lower themselves off steps to get in. With the help of friends it can be possible to leave prosthetics or wheelchairs on the side and be carried or assisted in hopping to the water. Describing her experiences of accessibility Cassy says, “ Jumping into a pool, or into the ocean, or into any body of water that I can slide into is always ideal. The greatest difficulties emerge when I need to make a gradual entry into the water. For example, because I can’t get my prosthesis wet (especially with salt water), going swimming at the beach is a great challenge for me. I either have to sit and scoot into and out of the water, or have someone carry me or help me hop in. None of these options are ideal as they are uncomfortable and draw a lot of unwanted attention from other beach goers. Jumping into the water from a boat or dock, where a ladder is available to climb back in is so much better as it allows me to maintain my independence. Another challenge of wild swimming or tubing [floating downstream on an inflatable] is what to do if I’m going from point A to B, but need to walk back to point A (e.g. if downstream a river). On tubing ventures with my friends and family, I’ve often sent my leg to the exit point with the shuttle bus that brings tubers back from point B to A. Recently, I’ve discovered the value of waterproof dry bags. I’ve successfully used one that was long enough to hold my leg and towel to dry my stump on a tube float. This allowed me to travel independently, dry my stump, and put the leg back on before returning on foot with the tube.”
MAPPING ACCESSIBLE SWIMS
Questions about accessible swims pop up once in a while in the OSS forum. Building a collection of accessible swims on wildswim.com is a convenient way of having that information to hand. That isn’t the only reason for doing this. Enjoyment of the outdoors and swimming is overwhelmingly represented with images of white able-bodied people. This isn’t inspiring or welcoming if you don’t fit that image. Organisations and individuals like Level Water, Swim Dem Crew and Afroswimmers are encouraging and supporting a wider range of people into swimming. As we are out and about enjoying outdoor swims it would be great if people notice and share accessible features. So please do get in touch if you have accessible swim tips to add to the map or queries:
Email: info (at) susannemasters.com
Instagram @mastermiss https://www.instagram.com/mastersmiss/