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Is 2021 the ‘Year of Open Water’?

Every sport or activity has its moment in the sun and the summer of 2021 could be it for open water swimming.

With travel restrictions on overseas trips still in place, many more people are going to be holidaying nearer home over the coming weeks.

If you’re near a Welsh beach, lake, or stretch of river you may notice that open water swimming is already undergoing something of a boom.

After more than a year of lockdown – a time in which public swimming pools and gyms have been closed for long periods – there has been a 45 per cent increase across the United Kingdom in those taking part in open water swimming.

 

The benefits for health – both physical and mental – of plunging into cool water are widely recognised as are the social gains of what can often be a group activity.

Now, though, those numbers could be lifted by another rising tide – a new partnership between Swim Wales, Welsh Triathlon and Welsh Water.

Reservoirs used to be off limits to swimmers as their deep waters, steep sides, narrow banks and hidden underwater machinery often meant they were not safe places to take a dip.

Attempts to allow a regulated amount of swimming have been undertaken and in Wales that has led to the SAFE Cymru programme – an accreditation plan worked out by the three bodies for all types of open water venues to ensure they are safe places to swim.

“What’s lovely about it is we are starting to see people who might not have accessed aquatic sports in the past, now coming together as groups and communities and going for a swim,” says Hope Filby from Swim Wales.

“Some might only go up to their ankles or knees, some might swim. But it’s the feel of the water and the environment they are in that’s very attractive. 

“We are seeing a huge benefit in terms of both health and mental well-being. That’s really important as  there is now so much focus on all our mental health.

“What better place to improve your mental health than by coming to a place like Llandegfedd Reservoir.”

Llandegfedd, near Cwmbran in Gwent, is the first reservoir to have been given the SAFE Cymru accreditation – meaning it’s been officially approved for safe, open water swimming.

That means swimmers – from competitive triathletes to those who just want to feel the chilling thrill of a dip – can now take the plunge.

Female participation in open water swimming has risen from 50 per cent in 2017 to 65 per cent in 2020.

Recent studies have found that regular cold-water swimming results in a ‘post-swim high’ triggered by the release of beta-endorphins in the body. 

Groups have sprung up all over Wales and include the Chicken Dippers and the Bluetits to name just two who both swim in the bays of Langland and Caswell near Swansea.

 

“The environment is different every time you go in the water,” adds Hope. “It’s never the same. 

“In Wales you can be swimming in a lake one day and the next you can choose to be swimming in coastal water. The element of surprise and difference is what makes it so exciting.”

Anna Markall from Caerphilly Triathlon Club was one of those brave enough to test the water at Llandegfedd.

“I do sea swimming as part of my triathlon training. I’ve never swam in a reservoir before, but it was nice to get in there,” she said. “It was freezing! 

“I’ve swum in open water for three or four years. It’s been something different and a challenge because swimming hasn’t come easily to me. I’ve had to work at it and still struggle sometimes. 

“But I’m 50 this year so it’s been nice to do something new which gives you a good sense of wellbeing. I’ve met lots of new people and there is a sense of community which is great.” 

Fellow triathlete Alex Burridge, 33, from Cardiff, says: “I have been open water swimming for a year now on and off. It’s not been long. Covid-19 has had its impact on people getting out and going swimming. 

“It’s a great way to enjoy the water. I prefer salt water personally, but there is nothing like open water to reinvigorate the soul. It’s been great for me to get out in the open water. 

“The physical and mental health benefits are huge.”

Welsh Triathlon chief executive Beverley Lewis says: “Existing triathletes know how wonderful it is to swim in open water. 

“We know some people don’t like the chlorine in a swimming pool and we know some people are scared about swimming off the coast or in salt water. 

“Swimming in a lake is something very different and very wonderful.”

Safety, of course, is paramount, which is why Welsh Water have backed SAFE Cymru to meet the demand from people wanting to access lakes and reservoirs as well as coastal waters.

“We have seen a huge increase in the number of people in this sport over the last few years,” says Alun Shurmer of Welsh Water.

“The interest has been phenomenal. People have been staying at home and not going abroad for their holidays. 

“They have been looking for other things to do, but if you’re going to do open water swimming then you should do it safely and the best way is through an accredited facility. Then you’ll have the safe knowledge you’ve got life guards around you and everything is in place.”

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