Sports: Ward goes round in ever-bigger circles: Loneliness is not a problem for the long-distance swimmer, but hypothermia is an ever present danger

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SARA WARD'S idea of going for a dip is very different to yours and mine. She does not pop down the local pool and run the gauntlet of dive-bombing youngsters and arm-banded toddlers as she reels off a few lengths. Instead, she heads for a large reservoir near her Bradford home, and swims round it for hours on end.

Ward, 19, is the best long-distance swimmer in Britain. We are not talking prissy 800 or 1500 metres swims here, either. At the national championships in rough seas off Weymouth earlier this year, she beat all the men by completing the course in seven hours, even though she does not really like swimming in the sea. And in September she will be our sole representative in the world long- distance championships, a 25km race along an Italian lake.

'She has not achieved her potential yet, because long-distance swimmers hit their peak in their middle and late 20s,' the team manager, Sarah Hunt, said. 'She is a tremendous prospect.'

Hunt should know. She and her twin sister, Carole, have dominated the sport, which could soon become part of the Olympics, for the past decade. The first twins to swim the Channel, they represented Britain in European and world championships, covering distances that normal people would think twice about driving.

'When you tell people that your hobby is long-distance swimming they think you are talking about 400 or 800 metres,' Hunt said. But when she was just 17 she swam the 10.5-mile Lake Windermere. Seeking a tougher challenge, she spent 11 hours doing a length of chilly Loch Lomond at night. That was 20 miles, but she has travelled even farther, though she does not really count the 50 kilometres she covered in a Grand Prix race down the River Piranha Hemandez in Argentina. It was an 88km race, but she gave up when her sister was hoicked out with a burst appendix.

So what are they like, these long-distance swimmers? Surprisingly normal, apart from their predilection for paddling around in frigid water. Almost all of them seem to have endured (they can't have enjoyed) the classic New Year's Day paddle at Todmorden. The artificial pond, which was originally a sheep dip, is 1,400 feet up and as cold as a politician's smile. This year, it was 2C.

International rules insist that the water should be a minimum of 16 degrees. That means Britain will never host a European or world championships. Windermere, for example, rarely rises above 14 degrees. There is a very good reason for the ruling - the biggest fear of the long-distance swimmer is hypothermia.

It is one reason why each swimmer has his or her own support boat at every championship. 'The person in the boat plays a vital role,' David Hunt, Sarah's father and the doctor to the British team, said. 'You can spot the signs of hypothermia easily. Swimmers start to swim in circles, play around with their goggles, fail to respond to instructions and they complain a lot.' It sounds funny, but it's not. A Brazilian on a cross-Channel swim died from hypothermia in 1988.

As a spectator sport, long- distance swimming is on a par with mole-racing. Even the marshals seemed slightly confused about who was winning the Midlands district open water swim at Swan Pool, Warley, near Birmingham, last weekend. With 30 competitors touring the lake at various speeds, it was soon impossible to work out who was doing well - unless you kept a careful note of each rotation and could see the numbers written with permanent markers on swimmers' arms (and in one case, on his forehead).

Ages ranged from 12 to 82. The latter was Gerald Forsberg, who despite his advancing years still takes a daily plunge in the sea near his Morecambe home. A clear sign of the sport's increasing popularity is that there are competitions every weekend until late October.

By long-distance standards, Swan Pool (appropriately named, because several swimmers were attacked by a paternal cob) was a quick dip, with the longest class offering a mere 4,500m swim. The best swimmers completed this in under an hour, though the sport is not really about beating others, claims Sarah Hunt. 'It's more about completing the course and swimming against yourself,' she said. 'There's an 800m event for under-14s here. When they've done that, they want to go on and do 1500 metres.'

That's always assuming they can overcome boredom. The boat plays a vital role here, keeping swimmers focused, motivated and providing regular high-energy drinks. Even very fit swimmers will sweat heavily, and those fluids must be replaced. (Incidentally, they only use grease to stop their swimsuits chafing, rather than to keep out the cold.)

Sarah, 31, said: 'You prepare for a long swim like a marathon run, with plenty of carbohydrates beforehand. It's a good job I like pasta. But I don't have problems with boredom. You have to concentrate on your stroke and rhythm, or everything starts to fall apart.'

On the other hand, Sara Ward finds music is the answer. 'I get a song in my head and just keep going,' she said. 'It doesn't really matter what the tune is.' For the world championships near Rome, she will no doubt be training to airs from Aida and Turandot. Though if she is going to be patriotic, it should surely be Handel's Water Music.