Meet the open water swimmers diving into the River Thames this winter

As Christmas approaches, more and more swimmers are taking to the River Thames in Teddington for a winter thrill.

Undeterred by London’s damp and heavy winter mornings, 49-year-old personal trainer Lisa Peake wades into muddy waters for a bracing swim to keep her spirits up.

She is in good company: the rise in the number of outdoor swimmers was so great this year that the Outdoor Swimming Society took its interactive map offline in the summer to prevent overcrowding at popular spots, and the map has not returned since.

“Cold-water swimming gives you a sense of your own mortality, your own life and how special it is when you see the sunrise coming up out of the water while you’re in it,” Lisa said.

“But for most of us, swimming is just part of our everyday lives and it’s just something you do to get yourself through the winter.”

Lisa is no stranger to outdoor swimming at this time of year, after taking up the sport four years ago in Tooting Bec Lido, but when the coronavirus restrictions hit, she needed a new normal in part to foster positive mental health.

“It’s the camaraderie of being with people and being outside if you’re surrounded by nature,” the personal trainer said.

“It’s been proven that blues and greens and rustling leaves have a high effect on your mood. But it’s also the cold water! I wish they prescribed it.”

But this is not the only reason for Lisa’s regular winter’s dip this year.

She became part of a relay team which will swim the channel in aid of three charities – Mind, Diabetes UK and the National Brain Appeal – in July 2021.

She said: “I need to keep my cold-water acclimatisation up.

“Outdoors, you are not just swimming up and down. You’ve got currents and waves and splashes and things you need to avoid in the water.

“Your body has to work harder to fit in with the elements.”

Lisa described this challenge as a mental and physical reboot.

Similar positive experiences were echoed by 56-year-old Ron, a single dad who first swam in the Thames in April and has not looked back since.

WARM UP: Ron, 56, started swimming in the Thames in April and has not stopped since

Ron said: “I see my kids a few times each week but otherwise I’ve been working from home since March, staring at my four walls.

“This thing kept me sane, being able to come down here and talk to people.

“It’s such a wonderful experience. I’m still trying to understand it.”

For Millie Ross, 28, swimming is her way of breaking up an otherwise suffocating city life.

She explained: “I feel really claustrophobic in London because there are too many people.

“Even though I love the community, there’s nowhere you can go and be on your own, but when you’re in the water, you can sort-of feel that.”

Feeling claustrophobic is one of several symptoms of mental ill-health linked to the lockdown, which studies say could have lasting effects on the overall health of the nation.

WINTER WARMER: Millie (centre) with friends Kieran Phillips-Tebb, 28, and Rosie Carr, 36 after a Saturday morning swim

Millie said that for many new wild winter swimmers, a dip in the Thames is having a remedial effect.

She added: “People are looking for things that make you feel brave and make you feel like you’ve achieved something at a moment when you’re not achieving very much in other areas of your life.”

And Cat Wallis, a 50-year-old Tooting screenwriter and lido swimmer who has taken to rivers and lakes across south-west London and Surrey, said that there are no points for macho bravery in November, particularly in the unpredictable currents and temperatures of the River Thames.

For Cat, swimming is a cosy experience for a stressful year.

She said: “Have a hot chocolate, and cake is essential.”

And at Christmas?

Cat said: “This is the first winter that I’ve swum consistently wild.

“For a lot of people, winter swimming is huge: it’s holding them together.

“I have a neighbour who has struggled through this whole lockdown period.

“It is the only thing that keeps their mind, body and soul together.”

And you can read about swimmers braving the Thames over the summer pre-Covid here.

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