Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Scottish Open Water Swimming - How the Riffkins are 'keeping it in the family'

At the Scottish National Open Water Swimming Championships at Loch Venachar (13-14 August), sisters Libby Riffkin (24), Jennifer Riffkin (27) and Rebecca Riffkin (30) took part in the One Mile Challenge event.  We caught up with them after their race and asked how they had enjoyed the Loch Venachar experience.

“It was good” said Libby, adding, “this is only the second outdoor swim we’ve tried.  Loch Venachar is great to swim in; the water is really clear and it’s not a choppy as it was at Loch Insh a couple of months ago”.

We wondered if a good bit of sibling rivalry was part of their motivation to do well.

“Not really”, said Libby, “Mum and our aunties are really competitive with swimming but we’re doing it more for fun and fitness not competition” before sister Jennifer added, “yes, but then you always win.  You’d probably be more competitive if you finished second”.

“You’re probably right” smiled Libby before big sister Rebecca, I think sensing a sibling moment, jumped in “it’s always Libby followed by Jennifer followed by me.”

Their mum, Mary Riffkin, was watching the race from the shoreline at Loch Venachar Sailing Club.  Mary knows a thing or two about open water swimming. Back in 1979, Mary became the first Scottish woman to swim the English Channel.  She says, “I’m from Dundee and back in the 1970s open water swimming was a bit of a cult activity and I know now that we were something of pioneers of the sport.  I did sprint swimming in the pool but also got to do the Tay ‘bridge to bridge’ race (which has since been replaced by the Discovery Mile) and won that five times starting when I was thirteen; I realised I was pretty second rate in the pool but pretty good over distance and outdoors.  So I took up long distance swimming and eventually did the Channel.”

Mary’s motivation for tackling one of outdoor swimming’s most iconic events is very personal.  She says, “You’ve got to remember how sexist the world was back then.  I did a technical drawing class at school and remember my teacher saying “I don’t like girls in my class”, and my careers advisor saying I shouldn’t take up engineering because it was “really for boys”.  There was a school of thought that distance and endurance events were bad for women’s health.  It took until 1984 before marathon running for women was an Olympic sport!  I wanted to do my bit to show what a load of nonsense it all was and my way was in the water.”

On the day itself Mary knew she had done all the right training, “I was still training for sprint swimming and that involved hours and hours of pool time every week, so it was a mix of open water and pool training that had me ready.  I had booked a safety boat to help me on the swim, but the hirer didn’t tell me he’d taken a second booking from another channel swimmer the day before.  It meant I was late starting and ended up swimming against the tide, which annoys me a little all these years later because I know I could have swam the Channel faster”.

Mary says she’s content these days to watch her kids in the water, but it sounds like she’s trying to convince herself more than others.  She says, “I kind of retired after the Channel swim, but when I turned fifty I had a go at Triathlon.  Some people seem to be able to carry on but I get tired now and I think old age is starting to beat me a little”.  Which seems reasonable until she adds, “I did do a 5km swim last month on the River Spey at Kingussie”.

With two open water events under their belt I wondered if Libby, Jennifer and Rebecca were keen to do more.   “Definitely” said Jennifer, with her sisters nodding, “I’ve got a bit of a bug for it”.

Open water swimming definitely runs in the Riffkin family!  If you’d like to find out when there is a “Skills and Drills” class or a “Come and Try” event near you, click here.

Thanks to Chris Kane for interviewing the Riffkin Family; more interviews/blogs can be found here.