Wednesday, December 30, 2020

MBE for Regional Development Manager and Open Water Swimmer Colleen

We are delighted to share the news that Colleen Blair, Regional Swimming Development Manager (Highlands, Islands & Moray) and Open Water Swimming Adventurer has been awarded an MBE in the New Years Honours List for services to swimming. We caught up with her before the news broke.

Colleen Isla Blair, MBE – how does that make you feel?

I am a bit shocked and having to ask myself why? However, it is a huge honour. I struggle to get my head around this, but I see it more as a reflection of what my team & I have done and achieved over the years and this is as much theirs as it is mine.

What’s your first memory of wild swimming?

If I am honest wild swimming scares me slightly, I started open water swims/competitions from the age of 7. My first swim was the 'Bridge to Bridge' in Dundee with my dad and I did most of it on his back if I am honest as it was cold!

As a child/teenager I would swim in the sea with my dad and also train in the River Tay at Dunkeld, swimming against the current and having fun. Wild swimming is to me going for an informal swim in different locations and traditionally this was done on a very small scale; however, thanks to social media wild swimming has grown massively over the last few years.  I didn’t properly start doing this until the last five years or so, before then I only swam outside for a purpose like a long swim or training. It still makes me nervous turning up to a body of water and just going for a swim, I suppose all the safety talks, seeing things going wrong and knowing the dangers often puts me off rather than encourages me. Don’t get me wrong there isn’t anything nicer than going for a swim to help relax and clear your head, its one of the few places my mind goes quiet and switches off.

On rainy days there is something special about being out in the water hearing the rain bounce on the water all around you, you are just in that moment. However you also have to be aware this can be an extreme sport and especially in the winter put stress on our body due to the cold.

How do you come up with the ‘challenges’?

You need an imagination, tough skin and daft friends to encourage you and give you ideas followed by a team that will help you make it happen. Many of the first swims or tougher challenges I have got a lot of negativity from people on how dangerous or impossible something is. For many of these swims the key to success is using local knowledge of the water and local boatman for your support boat and this  can be quite difficult sometimes as they know the water and the challenges and don’t think it is possible so are less willing to help.

For those who do go with the idea, it becomes a bit of an adventure and learning curve for them. I used to come up with “great ideas” that I would ask my parents about, I always know by their reaction if this is a great idea or a daft one with potential, or if I have taken it a step too far (in fairness to my parents there haven’t been too many that have not actually happened). I love it when someone says its not possible no one can do that and then you go out there and do it and show them that if everything is in your favour (weather, water temperature, water conditions, crew etc) it is possible. I do like the Audrey Hepburn quote “Nothing is impossible, the word itself says 'I'm possible'!”.

There is something unique about attempting the unknown and the uncertainty makes it more exciting to me especially when you get the nod to jump in the water to start the swim. I am not so excited or good at the logistics and working out all the details, I am too impatient and probably don’t have the attention span but again my team help me with this. My swimming is very much a team effort form the swim ideas to the swims themselves.

Can you list some of the ‘big’ swims?

All swims completed in skins (no wetsuit)

  • English Chanel
  • North Chanel
  • Catalina Chanel
  • 2-way Lake Windermere
  • SCAR Swim Challenge Arizona (I have swam twice) ( 4 lakes 4 days – Saguaro Lake 9.5miles , Canyon Lake 9miles, Apache Lake 17 miles & Roosevelt Lake 10km swim into the sunset)
  • Ice Mile 2016 Loch Tay water temp 4.7C
  • 1st person to swim Claire Island to Newport County Claire 1999 16 miles
  • 1st Scottish Female swimmer Loch Ness 1999
  • 1st person to swim Pentalnd Firth (Hoy-Scarfskerry) 9 miles
  • 1st person to swim North Minch 27 miles, 18hrs 46minutes
  • 1st female to swim Loch Tay

 What’s the most memorable one and why?

It is hard to pick just one swim, there are a few little bits from some of my favourite swims 

North Channel – This was a special swim, I attempted when I was 18 years old and did not finish the swim, it would take me another 12 years before I would get my chance to go back and finish it. The North Channel doesn’t have the best reputation it is classed as one of the hardest swims in the world, however for some reason I love it and would go back tomorrow if I had a chance. My swim was very last minute, the season was winding up, I had sat waiting on a phone call from Brian Maharg (Boat piliot) for the second season in the row waiting for the right weather. Brian phoned on a Thursday afternoon about 1300 to say could I get to Bangor for 6am the next day to swim. I phoned my mum she said leave it to me just get the time off work and pack.

I was on a late shift at the pool my manager covered my shift for me. I packed, got a friend to give me a lift to Perth, mum had spoken to Ian Reid who agreed to drop everything to come with us, we made the last ferry to Ireland by 10 minutes. I don’t really believe in fate but this just felt right and by 9am on Saturday morning we were travelling home swim done. I was lucky and had good conditions, some chop, some sun, some jelly fish but for the North channel this was good. I was in my happy place and its probably one of the few swims I just relaxed and loved nearly every minute of it. In the middle of the swim, there was a sea bird following me for a couple of hours, floating at my feet or flying above my head. When I first swam outside Dennis Sullivan organised many of the events and would do anything for his swimmers he was a great person, when he passed away his wife joked he would follow his swimmers as a bird. During the North Channel when I was having my feed and this bird was just looking at me, it made me smile and relax, I did think in my head everything will work out as I have Dennis at my side.

The Pentalnd Firth – It was a very different swim, there was a bit of a race on to see who could be the first person to swim it after Frank Chalmers first attempted it and it was made into a documentary called 'Crossing Hell’s Mouth'. This swim could not have been done without Robert Smith a local fisherman who would pilot my swim. The tides are notorious at this stretch of water so local knowledge was paramount.

I decided (well my dad) that we would go early in the season and take a longer route. The slightly longer (by 3 miles) route would give us more options to land at the end of the swim and the decision to go early was due to the distance being short 9 miles I could withstand the cold for that. The swim is from Orkney to the mainland and we met Robert at the harbour and jumped on his boat (we hadn’t met him before but dad had spoken to him a lot over the phone). This swim took a two way trust: Robert in me and me in him. The tides and currents meant that we had to be in set points at set times, Dad would signal for me to speed up and to slow back down. I remember thinking this is cold and maybe a step too far out the box however I just had to keep faith in my crew.  I was tired, my asthma didn’t like the speeding up parts but if we were to be successful it was needed. I remember having a battle in my head and suddenly noticing something underneith me and thought it was seaweed. Then there was more, I caught it again with my hand but it was attached to something and I was confused, but I just kept swimming. I then heard a noise, looked up and Robert was in a rowing boat beside me.  I thought I was maybe being pulled, swim over but I then looked up and realised I was at the end of the swim and the rocks were just ahead. We had done it!

The Minch Swim is probably one of the toughest swims I have done and would not have been possible without the support crew I had, most of which have not been involved in a swim before. I first looked at swimming the Minch many years ago however was repeatedly told it would be too cold and not possible with the tides. A few years ago Colin Mcleod organised  a relay swim across the North Minch, that made me think that it may not have been such a daft idea after all. The issue was how to source a boat and boatman to do the swim. The first year I was going to attempt the swim some of the Lochinver RNLI crew had offered to help, unfortunately due to weather conditions this attempt didn’t happen. Two years ago Colin & Norman were planning on solo wetsuit attempts, Colin had always said if he could help me he would. Four weeks before the swim Norman phoned me and asked if they could get additional support boats would I like to join them, I didn’t really think and said yes. I knew this was going to be a tough swim but I also knew deep down it was going to be tougher as I had hardly trained and didn’t really have a lot of time, I did a few 6-8 hour swims in Loch Tay and had to hope it would work out. I was really lucky with my support: Mum, Dad, Ian Reid my rocks and team, then there was Jodie the skipper of the boat and John his crewman the last team member was Brian Wilson who would kayak with me. I do not think any of us really knew what we had got ourselves into but without each and everyone of them I could not have done that swim. I jumped of the boat into 9C water open my eyes and just saw jellyfish everywhere, whilst swimming to the rocks to start, I just got my head around it was going to be a long hard cold day in the office and I just needed to get the job done.

The start was quite choppy, Ian was being sick over the side of the boat, Brian was by my side paddling. At a feed when we reached the halfway distance Brian said you're halfway and I suggested its all downhill form here and we have reached the top to the mountain! The swim was going to plan until we were just under 2 miles from the shore, we were stuck fighting the tide, the issue was we were trying to swim the North Minch and I was on the boundary line and the tides were pushing us to the South Minch. For about 5 hours I didn’t really move forwards we were battling the tides, I had learnt a lot of years ago never to look up and never look back that way you have no idea where you are, I am so glad I didn’t see that lighthouse for 5 hours it probably would have broken me.

Eventually Brian was worried about me becoming hypothermic and signalled for me to swim to the boat to tread water and speak to dad and Ian. I said I am cold I just want to finish a swim I no longer cared which Minch I finished in, I was for the first time in 18 hours starting to doubt this swim. The decision was to change course and hope closer to shore we could move back into the North Minch, as we moved closer to the shore Jody spotted an eddie in the tide and shouted to Brian and signalled where it was, that’s when I started moving to the shore and we got through the tide. Brian was encouraging me and communicating with me until we reached the rock by the lighthouse and I climbed onto the rocks. There is that point of yes I have done this followed by ah I need to still swim back to the boat. This swim was all about trust from the team in me and me in them everything worked for us and the job was done.

SCAR – is a unique swim in Arizona where swimmers from all over the world come together for a 4 day challenge. This is an amazing event, all the swimmers, kayakers and support crews all go on a 4 day road trip. I have been really lucky on the two occasions I have been to scar where swimmers have volunteered to kayak for me (Blaike, Audrey & Raine). It is an event where the only rule there are no rules and everyone has to help and work part of the team, you help carry kayaks to start of swims or onto trailers at the end. SCAR is like a big family of likeminded people, the best thing is everyone stays in contact after the event I have some close friends from this swim. Its hard to describe why I like it so much, the atmosphere and the people are probably the main reasons especially Kent the event organiser. 

Adventure swimming is not something you do on your own – who have been there to support you?

I am only a small cog in a big wheel, without my support team I would not be able to swim what I do, with each person having their own specific roles. My main team is my mum & Dad and I couldn’t do what I do without them, they have always supported everything I have done or suggested to do and they have always found a way for me to attempt a swim and supported me mentally, physically and financially. On swims Mum is shore support & logistics person you know a swim is done when you get a hug on the shore at the end. My dad is my everything when it comes to my swims, he knows me better than I do, he sorts my feeds, is often the voice of reason or the bad cop and tells things as they are. His presense on my boat gives me reassurance everything is going to be ok my job is just to swim and he will sort everything else out so I don’t have to think, he tells me to speed up or slow down, he knows be the way I breath if my asthma is bad and I need to slow down, I guess he is my rock.

Ian Reid has been on my boat for many of my swims, he was my hero when I was younger and the first person I had met that had swam the English Channel. Ian is the good cop to my dads bad cop when it comes to swims and support during a swim. He used to work out what swims I should do when and how to build up to the longer ones to help support me on my journey. Its hard to describe what he does but he is part of my support wheel and helps and supports dad on my swim they are my boat team. I have had many other people volunteer to support my swims which have made them happen from kayakers, support swimmers to boatmen, along with professional boatman. On my Minch swim Brian Wilson volunteered to be kayak support, Brian did not leave my side for the 19 hours I was in the water, he was a great support and made the swim easier. Kayaking with swimmers is not as easy as it sounds as they need to go at our speed, be our guide and give us our feeds, it can be just as difficult to paddle with a swimmer as swimming the swim itself.

As much as you love adventure, you are also a great advocate of safety, what are your key messages around this when it comes to wild or open water swimming?

It is hard to give set safety points as every swim is so different, the water temps, conditions and yourself all of which can change very quickly. Main points I would say

  • Know your limits and listen to your body if your getting cold get out (I sometimes only last 5 minutes but that’s ok its just a bad day)
  • Research the area you are planning on swimming in to check if its good place to swim, safe, what are the entry & exit points and are there any other water users in the area to be aware of. Thinking about tides or river currents is it advisable to swim.
  • Realising not all water types are safe to swim in and many have hidden dangers eg many swimmers swim in reservoirs I personally wouldn’t unless with permission and safety briefing to know and understand how the water systems work, the water can also be colder.
  • Swimmers shouldn’t swim on their own, if no one can swim with you have a spotter on shore.
  • Wear a bright coloured cap and tow float so that other users and people on shore can see you
  • Weather conditions can change a swim very carefully sometimes it’s a wasted drive to the loch but that’s ok, what not is just chancing going for a swim anyway
  • If there is heavy rain think about water quality or river levels and is it safe to swim that day
  • Learn to understand how you react to the cold and know your own limits.
  • Most importantly have fun, relax and enjoy it whilst being safe as you can in an open environment

And the last word goes to Colleen herself

My goals may seem extreme to some people, I will look for swims over 20 miles or the shorter ones have to have an additional challenge for it to catch my imagination. My goals are my own, like yours are your own and need to reflect your values and abilities. A 1km challenge can be as challenging to one person as a 20 mile swim is to me, the safety and challenges are similar. You need to create a training plan to build confidence and distance, look at what the barriers or hurdles you may face and work out how you can reduce these or train for them before you attempt your goal in the end this will make it more achievable regardless of the swim.

Congratulations Colleen Blair, MBE, we are very proud of you!