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Making it normal | The Outdoor Swimming Society

Adventure swimmers, wild swimmers, ice swimmers, social swimmers, skinny dippers… Outdoor swimming is enjoying a huge surge in popularity; with over 200 open water swimming events around the country, a similar number of open water triathlon training lakes and over 60 wild swimming social groups for people to join.
We caught up with the founder of The Outdoor Swimming Society, Kate Rew, to discuss the current state of outdoor swimming in the UK and what she sees for the future of the sport.

 

The OSS has done so much incredible work over the last 13 years, and come so far. Where do you want to take outdoor swimming next?

The Outdoor Swimming Society, version 1.0, was all communicating one simple message - “come on in, the water is lovely” - via every platform we could find. For over a decade we’ve set about telling as many people as we can that swimming outdoors is magical and transformative. That going for a swim has a way of washing your worries away so you emerge calm and energised, with the world in technicolour.

In 2019 that message has changed: at this point in history we need to become a little less evangelical, a little more realistic - it is more about acknowledging the power of embracing the discomfort, than minimising the discomforts of swimming in the first place. For The Outdoor Swimming Society 2.0, we want to get across that whilst swimming might make you feel really special, you don’t need to be a special person to do it!

Maybe in the first wave of the movement we naturally focused on people who are already quite strong swimmers, who were already very outdoors-y – whether they’re climbing or hiking or mountain biking or surfing – they already have all that going on in their lives. Whereas, where I think we want to take it next is to show it more to everybody. Whatever your age, wherever you live, whatever you choose to do in the rest of your life, however sporty or non-sporty you might be, whether you’ve grown up with that adventurous outdoors background or not, we want outdoor swimming to feel like something that you can do and to arm you with enough facts that you can go off and do it safely.

"Whilst swimming might make you feel really special, you don’t need to be a special person to do it!"

That’s as true for me as ever - swimming takes me back to the fun of childhood, and makes me emerge feeling sturdy in myself. Stronger, braver, more relaxed, happier. But having helped people over the hurdle of ‘it’s cold, it’s dirty, it’s dangerous’ the next iteration of the swimming movement is to make it normal. So, that’s what we’ve been talking about for the last 13 years, and I think in terms of what we want to do, we want to communicate that it’s for everybody.

Swimming has now been taken to places that were previously thought impossible, both in terms of exposure to cold and the depths of people’s resilience. People like Ross Edgley, or even these guys who have swum down the Amazon. It’s amazing what people have done. I don’t know if the next frontier of swimming will be an exploit. I think it’s more likely to be who is going to do it, and hopefully how normal it becomes.

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So that leads me on quite nicely to our second question; how do we make outdoor swimming part of the norm?

Well, our ambition is that people pack their swimming togs in the same way that people go out for a run at lunchtime. It may be they just go for a swim at lunchtime or even that they swim to work with their stuff in a bag behind them! So, how do we make it part of the norm? We keep doing it, and we keep talking about it. Keep sharing and educate an increasing number of people about both its joys, and how to be an outdoor swimmer.

If we want to keep swimming free, which we absolutely need to do for it to become part of the norm, then we need to make sure that some really key messages are getting out there; about cold shock, about not jumping in to shallow water. Things about swimming safety so that it doesn’t become policed.

"The risks posed by outdoor swimming are not to the actual swimmers. It's the incidental swimmers - the ones who fall in or spontaneously get in on a summer’s day and don’t quite know what lies ahead."

As a society we feel that a really important thing for us to do now is to increase the number of conversations we’re having about how to do it safely. As I’ve said: by and large, the risks posed by outdoor swimming are not to the actual swimmers. It doesn’t seem to be the people who are setting off intentionally for a swim with a pair of goggles who are getting into trouble. It’s the incidental swimmers - the ones who fall in or spontaneously get in on a summer’s day and don’t quite know what lies ahead. I think to make it part of the norm we need to run a big educational programme to make sure people are aware of how to do it and how to look after themselves when they do it.

You now have places like the Lake District National Park and the National Trust accepting and opening their shores to swimmers, in a way they really weren’t a decade ago. I think especially these two are worth mentioning, because they have brilliant information for swimmers on their websites now.

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We fully believe that with the right to swim outdoors freely, for free, comes the responsibility to do it safely. In terms of where we are in history now I think we need to work really hard to make sure people are swimming safely and responsibly and are not inconveniencing landowners, or taking unnecessary risks.

Almost 13 years on from the formation of the OSS, what does swimming mean to you now?

For me, swimming is all about community. The key part of the Outdoor Swimming Society, its DNA, is about sharing the swim love. It’s a community of people who want to share some kind of creative output as a result of their swimming. Whether that’s a story, a place they’ve found, an experience they’ve had, a photo they’ve taken or some words they’ve written. There’s something about swimming that makes you want to share it with other people.

So for me, it’s not just about the swimming any more. It’s about the open heartedness that seems to come as a result of swimming. And I think that has been the absolute treat of the society for me. It’s enabled me to get to know people on a really interesting level, really quickly, without all the normal social markers of age, gender, profession, or even other interests. You connect to people as swimmers and you’re doing something that involves having an adventure together and getting outside of your comfort zone.

It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve gone for a swim, you’re still going to be out of your comfort zone if you’re stripping off all of your clothes, there’s a north wind blowing and the water’s eight degrees… you know? So it is a little mini adventure every time and there’s an element of the physical exposure that means you really connect to the people you are with. And I love that. It seems to be such an antidote to much of modern life that I guess I love it all the more.

"There’s something about swimming that makes you want to share it with other people. So for me, it’s not just about the swimming any more. It’s about the open heartedness that seems to come as a result of swimming."

In the film we made, chasing the sublime, we talk about how discomfort has become its own luxury. We are so padded and mollycoddled and made comfortable at every turn these days. We’re so insulated from risk or change or difference that I guess swimming is really refreshing in that way.

Everything about modern life pushes you towards people who are more like you, so it’s really lovely to have something that just doesn’t do that. Other than the fact that you love swimming, you might have nothing in common with the other people you meet through it. But you have swimming in common, and in that moment, that’s all that matters.

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE OUTDOOR SWIMMING SOCIETY.