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United By Water

Beth French is a rather extraordinary human. A single mother, diagnosed with ME after a childhood of poor health, she is the only person to attempt the Oceans Seven challenge in a single year; swimming seven of the most challenging straight and sea channels in the world.

We are honoured to be bringing Beth’s story to our community, screening Against the Tides across six of our stores in the coming weeks. The inspirational words below were sent through from Beth in anticipation of the tour, and give a little insight into the determination of someone who has taken on challenges many would only dream of.

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I'm fascinated by the process of figuring out what I'm capable of. Stretching what is possible. I would like to say that is a hard won attribute, having had my childhood decimated by ill health - winding up in a wheelchair at 17, retrospectively diagnosed with ME... but that wouldn’t be entirely true.

My curiosity as a child was always how far/high/what it felt like, in the natural world. I was so fortunate to be brought up in the country, on a farm. How high up a tree could I climb? And then sit and commune with squirrels. How far could I wander without getting lost? But my most enduring urge was always water. The endless potential - particularly of the sea - and the horizon has been a lifelong itch that I have found many ways to scratch, but my favourite is swimming, without a wetsuit, and as much as is safely possible, alone.

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The ocean at night holds no fear for me. It's not brave of me to dive into the silky inky black water and head out towards the unseen horizon. The giddy sensation of expansion I feel at wanting to set off into the unknown threatens to swallow me entirely, engulfing me in a euphoria I'm not sure I'll find a way out of, or want to evade. That feels unsafe, insane even. Unhinged at best. Choosing to lose oneself. A choice of insanity, hoping it's temporary... Or do I hope that? The loss of ego, the decomposition of personality, the bearing of soul. Petrifying. Elicit. Addictive.

I can't say what it is inside me that allows me, drives me, to let go and experience free fall within, but I remember nothing but relief as I step off that shaky, shimmering shard of selfhood that is the shore and... cease to exist. To let go of pride and dignity; let go of shame at being insignificant in comparison to the vast expanse of the ocean, let go of pain and that unique exquisite torment that is caused by battering yourself to behave in a way that is prescribed for you but bends you out of shape. To let go of all that I think of as me. Especially cold water swimming; that breathless surrender and the magnified experience of each and every moment and molecule, unable to be anywhere but present. Held but released in perfect balance, mindful and experiential. Truly alive.

When the fear of change is outweighed by the fear of staying the same, evolution is swift and painless. I often feel adrift in life... Not in a negative way, but without an anchor that dictates 'this is the way it SHOULD be done' and for that, I am eternally grateful. 'Shoulda, woulda, coulda' doesn't cut it. There are no marks for wishing you had done something. Life's tough on procrastinators. Things pile up and get in the way, things of your own creation. Bits of you that serve no purpose. I have tested my boundaries in the water - my safe space, where my body is better able to cope with exercise and my ME is a mere shadow rather than a looming presence.

I have been so fortunate to have swum some epic swims; island to island, country to country and even continent to continent, and I have had epiphanies from spending hours on end working through my own personal purgatory. But the true significance of my swims is sometimes simply that I am able to do them at all. And it is this significance that shines brighter than any accolade.

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I've learned that significance is so purely personal - the first time someone ever feels brave enough to go out of their depth in the sea, the first ever night swim, first ever mile - and I am so fortunate to have shared these and many other significant swims with people. Often, due to my ‘big swims’ people trust that I will keep them safe. The moment when someone’s horizons just get bigger is one of my most cherished gifts. Always.

The sea offers us so many chances for challenging our significance. Mother Nature is so very in charge and the sea is a wild and untameable creature. But not necessarily unknowable. And not always ferocious. We develop our favourite spots to surf or swim; we know its moods, its fickle little ways. Familiar and binding, a relationship that requires regular acquaintance or we start to feel unfaithful. So to go out of that place of comfort, to explore other areas of the sea, to feel different tides, to taste different salt on the tongue and the see the glorious variation of blues and greens, is such a privilege.

And of course, the warm welcome of other water lovers. That connection to the sea creates a glint in the eye, a sparkle that cannot be dimmed and is silently communicated along with the ready smiles of those who are comfortable in their skin, and happy to share their own significant space. Sharing stories along with a hot flask - and often cake - it is a merry band of reprobates that gather on the shores in wilder times and colder climes. Each swim is significant then; testing the mettle and stretching the comfort zone. With the whoops and giggles, the faffers and the purposeful, the silent ones who slip effortlessly into the pin-prickling depths. All coming together from different lives and different challenges. United by water.

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Beth French - Against the Tides