Updated: Jul 28, 2022
We came across Melanie on Facebook: Against the tide - blind wild swimming
My wild swimming journey as a blind swimmer - challenging perceptions, accessibility, reaching for new goals and new horizons.
That's quite something, isn't it? Blind wild swimming. (So many of us zig-zag across the river enough even with good vision...) Wanting to know more of what it’s like to be a partially-sighted wild swimmer, we followed links from Melanie's posts and discovered that Melanie is a gold, silver and bronze medal-winning Paralympian in the swimming pool. Amazing! You can hear about that and her other distance swims on a WildWimmin podcast here (or Apple or Spotify, etc.) and it's well worth a listen.
We’re hoping Melanie might make it over to one of the Lock-to-lock events so we can meet her – but for now, what of the dips Melanie was posting about on Facebook? How does that work if you're partially sighted? Wild swimming is such a sensory experience, what's it like if one of those senses is limited? And what are her ambitions for swimming now that she’s gone wild?
Open water swimming means different things to all of us. We all do it for many different reasons, and I am sure, we all experience it in many different ways. I have taken part in many sports in my life but I have never found a sport with such a dichotomy.
I am registered blind and have been since birth. I have some useful vision; I can see colours and shapes but not any detail, and I only see in two dimensions having only one eye. However, I count myself as fortunate as I have no idea what “normal vision” is – I have always seen things the way I do now. I know I will never drive, never ride a bike, or wave and smile to a friend across the street. In fact, I can’t exchange a smile or glance with someone at any time – I can’t even recognise my own family and have been known to say hello to dustbins and ignore well known friends and family. However, I have never had this and so I don’t feel a loss.
What I have always loved is being in water, being supported, engulfed, surrounded and hugged by it. Moving through it, feeling it on my body, on my face and running through my fingers and hands, rushing through my ears. Face in the water I can see only blue or green or black depending on the water. Above the water I can see very little and it’s been a bit of a learning curve what shapes are on the water!
I was lucky enough to have a career in competitive swimming. For five years, my life revolved around pool training, competing, travelling all over the world to race and win medals for Great Britain. I lived in and for the pool, I dreamt and lived swimming. The pinnacle of my career was winning Gold and Silver at the Paralympics in Atlanta, and Gold, Silver and Bronze in Sydney. I have some fantastic memories of an incredible, intense time of my life… led at quite a pace!
After retiring from swimming I have dabbled in other sports; rowing, cycling, judo and running. But I have always been drawn to the water, back to the pool. It seems that once in the water I can really be me – just me and the water, my old friend! I had always dreamed of outdoor swimming and had watched with envy as people ran off into the sea to face the waves and endless water. How could I possibly do this without being able to see? I felt a real draw to open water but had no idea how to take the steps needed to “dive in” – sadly my guide dog doesn’t swim!
I became friends with a lovely lady, Heather, who is an incredibly experienced open water swimmer, a channel swimmer, and a fountain of knowledge for all things wild swimming. She took me to our local river, held my hand as I got in, and then took me under her wing. And then I was hooked.
The cold-water shock… the immediate, sudden, overwhelming feeling of cold all over, all around me, tingly pain in my fingertips, my toes, the back of my neck… suddenly I was so incredibly aware of every single cell in my body, my focus was truly on me, the here and now, the moment... Just breathe… then I became aware of the smell of the river; the strong, slightly sweet, slightly musty, earthy tang. The fresh air blowing across the water and kissing my face, ruffling my hair. The sound of the birds so clear and close… some rustles in the river bank and bushes. I felt like a part of nature, not an observer; taking part in life, rather than watching it go by. We spent time just floating in the river, Heather pointing out to me the swans, the ducks, describing what I couldn’t see. What a beautiful experience we shared together.
Can you remember your first wild swim – who you shared it with and what it felt like? I know I will never forget, and it is one of the things that draws me back to the river, sea or lake, over and over.
And then there is the post swim high – something unlike anything I have ever felt, in any sport. It is a drug I crave; long for over days that I cannot dip, until I get my “fix” and feel the release, the reset that brings sunshine to my days. Frustratingly I have to wait until a friend can take me and can’t just go when I feel the need. But I feel lucky to have lovely friends that take me when they can and I am always grateful for what I have rather than yearn for what I don’t. Perhaps because my time in the water is so limited I cherish and treasure every moment more than I would do.
Once I became hooked, I decided to venture into the open water races and entered several last year. Not to win, or to set a time, but as a personal challenge and to apply my swimming skills to my new favourite activity. Over time Heather and I realised we wouldn’t be able to swim together, so I came up with the solution of swimming alongside my husband in a kayak. In this way, together we conquered a 10k lake swim and the Thames marathon. I loved the feeling of stretching out and swimming on and on and on from one place to the other. The personal, physical and mental challenge of a long swim. I relished the challenge and the sense of achievement and am so grateful for the support my husband gave me – and still does!
The experience I have from this type of swimming is very different – it is all about movement, breathing, noise, water in my face, darkness, water rushing over me and my ears. All of my focus is on this, not on where I am, not on nature or being part of it. It’s all about how my body feels as I move through the water… still a very sensory experience but a very different one. This side of the sport is certainly not a social one, it is all about myself and my own body, my own sensation – much more like the pool swimming I am used to. I retreat into my own mind, my own world.
My dream is to swim the English Channel and I am slowing increasing my distance with a view to trying for this in a few years’ time… I hope to swim some of the bigger UK lakes over the next few years. But to me, this seems like a completely different sport to the experience I share with my friends at the river. If I had to choose, I would say I actually prefer the complete sensory immersion I get from “dipping” – being part of nature and experiencing it with all of my senses, and the associated mental “reset” I feel afterwards.
I feel that the people we share these experiences with are very special – such incredible moments spent together and perhaps more so in my case due to the element of trust we share. I also really struggle mentally with the dark, winter months but now I have found some light and sunshine in the dark days – and a reason to look forward to the winter months!
Yes, it’s certainly a very dichotomous sport. I love both sides of this dichotomy, both are addictive, both are wonderful and both have such a draw. I feel privileged to be able to experience this and be part of nature... I am also beginning to realise what a wonderful, supportive community wild swimmers are!
Previous double Paralympic champion turned novice open water swimmer
Photos: Darrin Roles