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Paralympian Swimmer Melanie Barratt: How I found Cold Water Swimming

Posted by Lydia Burdett

by Melanie Barratt

There is something about water… Peace, movement, the sound, the smell, the sight of nature at it’s finest. Paddleboarding is such a wonderful, unobtrusive way to enjoy this; gliding over the water, leaving but a ripple behind you. But have you ever considered what it would be like from a different perspective?

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 2 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 known otherwise,  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 8 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… lead at quite a pace!

After retiring from swimming, I have dabbled in other sports; rowing, cycling, judo and running. I had a go at paddleboarding but, although I loved the challenge and the idea of it, I just couldn’t balance due to my poor vision, and I was too scared to move forward into the unknown!  But I have always been drawn to the water, so 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, 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 riverbank 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. 

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.

This year, thing have become much more exciting!  Richard and I now have a radio communication system that allow him to talk to me constantly throughout a swim, whether it’s to guide me around obstacles, or give directions (we use a clock face system) or to tell me where I am in the race, how far I have to go, or even what he can see on long boring swims!  We also have teamed up with Red, and have the most awesome Voyager paddleboard, which allows Richard the flexibility to stand and move around and have a much higher viewing point up and down busy rivers, and during busy races.  These two pieces of kit have been complete game changers for us…. Enabling me to actually race at my full potential.  This year I won my age group in the Henley Classic swim, came second in the Thames marathon, and swam the length of Lake Windemere! All that I would have thought impossible just a few short years ago, when I was too terrified to even try getting into open water.  It truly is amazing what you can achieve when you push yourself out of your comfort zone and face your fears and doubts!

Looking to the future, next year I am part of a relay team that is swimming across Lake Geneva, and I will return to the Thames marathon with the hope of winning this time!  I am also planning to swim the Lakes “Triple Crown” – Ullswater, Coniston and Windemere.  But my ultimate goal is to swim the English Channel.  I have a crossing booked for August 2024 – if I am successful, I will be the first blind woman to swim the channel… a huge challenge, but something I am working towards over the next few years; broken down into manageable, achievable goals – I will get there – and with good tides and a following wind I will get to France!  Life is so much fuller with a goal to work towards!

You can follow Melanie's journey at blindwildswimming on Facebook