This Girl Can

Gill Dando recounts her journey into outdoor swimming and the latest This Girl Can Campaign

The “ooh” of the first splash of saltwater on bare thighs. The leap of faith into full immersion. The joy of bobbing amid green waves. Then back on the shore wrapped in a towel, your swimsuit around your ankles and skin tingling.

This quartet of scenes from Sport England’s latest This Girl Can campaign captures moments that are sacred for any outdoor swimmer. Its star, Gill Dando, is on a mission to entice more people to wade – however tentatively – into the water.

As a lifelong suffer of anxiety, PTSD and eating disorders it was a big deal being on camera full frontal in a bather,” says Gill, from Sunderland. “But I did it because I want to get the message out to people with hectic schedules and tight budgets that they can still get out and do things to improve their health and wellbeing.”

The first This Girl Can campaign was launched in 2015 to encourage more women to take part in sport. Its message was based around research that found many women are dissuaded from exercise because they fear judgement – for their appearance, ability or doing something that involves focusing on themselves rather than family.

This year’s campaign is titled ‘Fit Got Real’ to represent ordinary women of all shapes and sizes sweating it out on land and at sea. It’s a message Gill identifies strongly with.

“The first time I went swimming with a group, I wore my short wetsuit because I didn’t want anyone to see me in my swimsuit,” she says. “Then I realised no one cared. I found it so liberating to just not care. It strips away the day-to-day worries and all those consumerist, materialist things that don’t matter.

“That’s an important part of the campaign. Adverts for fitness products suggest you need to buy the right gear, the gym contract, whereas This Girl Can is thinking outside of that – see what you can do that fits around your day-to-day life. Swimming in the sea doesn’t cost you anything unless you need a swim cap.”

Gill started swimming outdoors in earnest last year, after doing lots of watersports and realising that she actually just wanted to be in the sea. Her regular spots include Roker, Tynemouth, Cullercoats, Boulmer and the Coquet Valley.

“I joined a group and it took me a while to join in because I’m a bit of a lone wolf,” she says. “I’d sit in my car and watch, then one day decided to get out. Fausto Bathers swim between the two piers at Roker so it’s safe.

“There’s kids up to grannies, authors, police officers, engineers, high-flying barristers… It’s a real melting pot of people with a mix of ability, from people who dip and bob to elite level triathletes.”

She also swims with Mind and Sole Alnwick, a group that initially formed to encourage people to start running, but now also runs open water swimming sessions.

“I did it primarily to be fit, but that has become a by-product,” she says. “I’ve struggled with different issues all my life, PTSD, eating disorders and body image issues. On a daily basis, I notice in my own mind I feel better able to deal with stresses and anxieties.

“If I don’t go swimming for a while, I miss it. It’s like everyone says – we go there to press the reset button. It’s a liberating way of escaping the day-to-day.”

If Ross Edgley and Lewis Pugh have expanded our collective imagination of what’s possible on an epic scale, it’s people like Gill who show how the spirit of this translates to an everyday level.

“I’ve had people on Twitter and Facebook contacting me saying ‘I wasn’t going to go out today but I did’”, she says. “I’ve a family member having a tough time who watched it and thought ‘right, get up and get out there’. It’s just lovely that it has this diverse effect and seems to be hitting the right notes.”


Beth Pearson