Swimming's breath of fresh air

Phil Shaw reports on various murky goings-on as some of the nation's more eccentric swimmers brave the cold in a return to nature at Rudyard Lake
Click to follow
Given a sport favoured by Byron and the setting to which Kipling owed his first name, the Open Water Swimming Championships at Rudyard Lake were always likely to be a costume drama. But the news that greeted early arrivals suggested a dark plot indeed.

"One of our boys was knifed by vandals during the night," Wendy Coles, of the Amateur Swimming Association, intoned grimly. The lakeside hotel fleetingly took on the aura of the rain-lashed pub that the two hikers stumble into in American Werewolf in London. Images formed of competitors being ambushed on the Staffordshire Moorlands. Then she pointed out the buoy in question.

It would be wrong, however, to imagine that the intrigue ended there, or that Saturday was merely about 80 or so eccentrics indulging themselves. The men's and women's 5km races doubled as a trial for the European Championships, to be held in Seville in August, which in turn could lead to a trip to Australia for the World Championships in January.

Open-water swimming is undergoing a revival. Before the first indoor pool was inaugurated at Wembley, as recently as the 1948 Olympics, Britain's swimmers had to take to the lakes, rivers, canals and coasts. Increasing awareness of pollution meant that heated municipal baths, with their purified water, quickly took over.

Now, in a small but significant way, the tide is turning. The Lords & Commons Cup, presented by MPs in the 1870s and contested in the Thames and later the Serpentine, was once again on offer in the men's race after years when swimming was synonymous with the whiff of chlorine.

Back in time also means back to nature. A serene stretch of water, built as a reservoir in a steep and scenic wooded valley two centuries ago, Rudyard is home to countless fish and birds. Their peace was about to be shattered.

First, though, came the 9am roll-call. ASA officials outlined the rules and safety proceedures. "If you need assistance, please turn over on your back and wave to a canoe," said one, acknowledging the presence of the Potteries Paddlers. "Don't wait until you sink and die before trying to attract attention."

In the event the massed clipboard carriers would be in greater danger. As they gathered on the rickety platform which jutted out into the lake, a canoeist called out: "By the way, that's been condemned."

Some of the 55 men, many plastered in vaseline, also wore a doomed look as they waded out in the driving rain. The starter's flag finally set the adrenalin and arms pumping, only for one of their number, Philip Haselgrove of Pontypool Masters, to withdraw immediately, complaining of breathing difficulties.

Soon the women were stepping gingerly into the deep. A cry of "I need a wee" broke the metaphorical ice before they followed in a flurry of foam and thrashing arms.

The first eight men and the top two women completed the requisite two circuits inside an hour, giving the Great Britain selectors an embarrassment of riches. They had stipulated that all men finishing inside 62 minutes and women under 67 minutes would be considered for Spain.

David Fytche came in 23 seconds ahead of a quartet bunched together as if they had just raced 100 metres rather than three miles-plus. A 19-year- old student from the Portsmouth Northsea club, he had never swum further than 2km. "I trained in the sea at Hayling Island three times, but only for half an hour," he said. "Compared with that the lake was quite warm, but my forearms and upper body hurt now."

Paula Wood, 18, a swimming instructor and life guard from Hillingdon Borough, won the ladies' trophy. "I train indoors," she admitted. "It's all in the head. I just get in there and do it. Getting in was the only problem - it took my breath away."

City of Liverpool's Anthony Landry was welcomed in by his dog, which plunged in excitedly to meet him. That was the nearest anyone came to encountering any wildlife, although a former champion, Bridget Hopkinson, recalled "sticklebacks in me cossie" and one 10-mile slog at Windermere when angry swans blocked the finishing line.

The oldest competitor, Eric Mountain, who will be 68 in August, needed a little over 100 minutes to complete the course. A stalwart of the Spencer Swim Team, he takes a cold shower every day to acclimatise for open-water swimming.

The only competitor to be disqualified, Chris Hargreaves of Howe Bridge Marlins, may have been tempted to cool his indignation in similar fashion. His offence, confirmed by a hastily convened jury of appeal, was to swim the wrong side of a pink floating object. Mad about the buoy: there was a certain symmetry about it all.

Results, Digest, page 19