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Open Water Swimming: Paralympian Melanie Barratt

Open Water Swimming: Paralympian Melanie Barratt

I was born with congenital toxoplasmosis, leaving me blind in my left eye and able to see close shapes and colours with my right - effectively a B2 classification.

I always loved being in the water, the feeling of being suspended in and moving through it. But it wasn't until I was older that I realised I had a talent for it. In those days, BBS ran development weekends for several sports, including swimming. We would stay in a hotel in Birmingham and train 5 times over a weekend, learning the skills needed to swim each stroke, swim straight, dive and turn. Gradually I improved and was selected for the "national squad" weekends where training was more intense and directed towards competition. I was selected for my first international when I was 17, which is quite late in swimming terms!

I went on to have a swimming career that lasted 10 years, swimming all over the world. Gradually more funding came into the sport, and we had more competitions and training camps in exciting places like Australia and Florida. My career highlights were winning multiple golds at world championship level, and 2 Golds, 2 Silvers and a Bronze at the Paralympic Games (Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000).

After Sydney, I retired from swimming and qualified as a physiotherapist. I worked for the NHS and private practice for 14 years. Alongside this, I dabbled in other sports - tandem cycling, rowing, judo and marathon running (I ran the London marathon twice to fundraise for BBS). I also had a go at triathlon and won the Triathlon World Championships in 2008. Sadly, I retired to have my second child before it became a Paralympic sport!

As part of triathlon, I had to swim in open water, which is in a lake or the sea. This took a lot of getting used to, as I can't see anything under the water and very little above. But I loved the feeling of swimming outside, in the fresh air, literally immersed in nature! It felt like how swimming should be. But I thought it would be impossible to swim long distances in open water - how would I know where to go, what to avoid? During the triathlon, I was tethered to my guide at the ankle, but she was too slow for me to swim alongside for any length of time. I have been unable to find a guide that swims at my pace so far, so I've had to think of an alternative!

A few years ago I met a very experienced open water swimmer who took me under her wing and got me in the water. I realised that being in the water is not just about swimming! Cold water immersion has incredible health benefits, both mental and physical. Since starting regular cold water swimming, I have been much more positive, much happier, and I've not been ill at all (touch wood!). It's also an incredibly social thing to do: a little paddle in the water together is an incredibly bonding experience and the open water swimming community is so welcoming and non-judgemental.

But I wanted to swim too, as I love a challenge! So last year I learnt to swim alongside my husband in his kayak. It's not perfect, but generally, it works ok! I entered a 10k around a lake in Snowdonia and came 4th, something that I was immensely proud of. We then conquered the Thames marathon, a swim between Henley and Marlow, which was slightly more challenging as there were many more swimmers, and we had to exit the river to negotiate several locks. But we completed it and what an achievement to make together. My final race of the year was Beat the Tide in Snowdonia again, an estuary swim that was quite a challenge! It was very tidal so lots of hard swimming, but I came 3rd overall and was the first female! I was so excited, and it was a great way to finish the year.

One thing we really struggled with was communication. My husband couldn't talk to me whilst I was swimming and was unable to give me any directions, which was very frustrating for both of us at times! Towards the end of last year, we discovered myJukes, a wireless radio system that connects to bone conducting headphones. Richard can now talk to me constantly whilst I am swimming, guiding me, and telling me where I am in the race, how far to go, what's coming up etc. He has guided me from a sunbed in Turkey and from the side of a freezing cold quarry in Leicestershire! We are really excited about how this will change things in the future!

I have entered the Thames marathon again, in skins this time (no wetsuit), and will swim the length of Lake Windermere. At 10.5 miles this will be the longest swim I will have done and it's quite daunting! As yet, I'm not sure if I will swim it in a wetsuit or not. I need to get used to swimming in cold water for long periods of time though because my ultimate goal is to swim the English Channel. I am going to make an attempt in August 2024. If I am successful, I will be the first blind woman to complete it. All my training over the next few years will be building up to this - I need to train my body and my mind to cope with hours and hours of continuous swimming. But more than anything I need to learn to cope with the cold! I've swam through two winters now, and I can tell that my body is getting better at dealing with the cold and I can stay in the water for longer. I regularly get into the water all through the winter, in just my cozzie, in temperatures as low as 5 degrees. I'm hoping that this acclimatisation will continue! In late August/early September the sea will be 17 degrees, so probably at its warmest!

Alongside my training, I am really hoping to make the sport more accessible to people with sight loss. I am working with Swim England to incorporate some Paralympic categories into events. I also am a huge advocate for the benefits of cold water swimming and I'm passionate about spreading the joy! I know how hard it can be to try new things, and open water swimming is perhaps one of the most daunting. It's not just getting in the water, it's getting to a good, safe spot to do it. I have started up a Facebook group called "Blind Swim Buddies" where people can register as volunteers and state where they are, what kind of water activity they do, and where they go. We also share where we are, and what we'd like to try. Already there is a growing network all over the country of willing volunteers and some partnerships have been made! It's so exciting to see.

You don't have to be a swimmer, most people just go for a paddle, a chat and a cuppa. It's all about the feel-good factor - and wow, you will feel good, I guarantee you!

To find a swim buddy go to: https://www.facebook.com/groups/473307361227502/

And to follow my journey go to: https://m.facebook.com/blindwildswimming/