Sophie Etheridge - Adaptive Athlete
Sometimes in life things don’t turn out the way you always thought they would, and that can’t be more true than my journey with open water swimming.
I grew up in Hastings, East Sussex and started learning to swim at age 2, instantly took to it and fell in love with it. A couple of years after starting to learn to swim I was named Southern Water Baby of the year for being the youngest person to swim 5m and was presented my certificate by two Olympic Swimmers. I continued working my way through all the STA swimming awards and badges; and like most kids, my mum would the sew all my bagdges onto my dolphin swimming towel.
I completed all the awards by age 11 and joined the local competitive swim club, the Hastings Seagulls. I swam competitively up to County level until the age of 17 and alongside swimming competitively I also joined The Hastings Voluntary Lifeguards and that is where my Open Water Swimming journey began.
Growing up by the sea has its benefits, mainly, it means you can go sea swimming. Once I was a member of the Hastings Voluntary Lifeguards, I spent most summers at the beach in the sea and at age 15 when the lifeguard club decided they wanted to take on the English Channel as a relay I signed up. I did all the training, kept up with people twice my age and was eventually picked as one of the final 6 members of the team. We waited for the call to Dover ready for our swim slot, I said my goodbyes to my mum and got on the boat ready to head to our starting point. However, for some reason I began feeling sick almost straight away and I continued being sea-sick from then on and at 2am in the morning when it was my turn to get ready to swim, I had to make the decision of if I was going to swim or not. If I decided to swim but when I got back on the boat continued to be sea-sick and couldn’t swim again then the relay team would fail. The other option was for me to not to swim, have wasted all that training and to let the substitute swim instead of me. At age 16 this was a huge decision for me to make on my own in the middle of the English Channel but in the end, I decided to put the team first and allowed the substitute swim instead of me and this resulted in the team completing the channel relay. I knew I had done the right thing because the team succeeded but it meant that all my training had been for nothing. When I was finally on solid ground 14 hours later, I stopped being seasick and told myself “if I can’t do the channel as a relay due to sea sickness then I will come back and do it solo”.
I kept open water swimming through my late teens and also started getting into Triathlon whilst at college and during my first year at university.
Going to University is supposed to be an amazing experience and my first year was. I studied Music BA hons and my first year was fantastic, I joined lots of orchestras, bands and choirs and still had time for swimming and triathlon training on the side, it was great. However, at the beginning of my second year I was cycling to a strength and conditioning training session and was hit by a car and knocked off my bike.
My life changed forever in that instant.
At the time of the accident, I felt very lucky, I had been wearing a helmet and I managed to get away with just a badly sprained left ankle, cuts, and bruises. I was told that I would be on crutches for about 3-4 weeks and then be back to normal, sadly, week four came around and the pain was getting worse, not better! Six months later I was still on crutches and in even more pain. Doctors were baffled, I saw all the doctors at the GP surgery and I saw several physiotherapists over the next year and it was one of those that noticed the other symptoms I had and, as a result I was referred to the Pain Clinic at Addenbrookes Hospital.
In late 2012 I was finally given the diagnosis of Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, or CRPS for short. If you search for information on the condition, you come across the following statement from the NHS “Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) is a poorly understood condition where a person experiences persistent severe and debilitating pain.” It doesn’t tell you much. This is how, after 10 years of pain I would describe it: “CRPS is one of the most painful conditions in the world, but it is still poorly understood. It can affect anywhere from one limb to the entire body and feels like the area affected is constantly on fire and unless you get the correct treatment early on, the likelihood is that you will have this pain for the rest of your life.” As a result of the diagnosis my entire world changed, it felt like everything I wanted was now impossible and out of reach, I was constantly exhausted, trying to carry on like nothing had changed but of course, everything had.
I ended up doing my final year at university part time over 2 years. Studying full time was just too much and too exhausting for me with all the hospital appointments and days off needed due to my pain. Despite that, I did graduate in 2014 with a 2:1.
I was still having regular trips to the hospital for appointments and eventually, in 2015 I was put onto the Pain Management Programme at Addenbrookes. It was during this course that I first had Hydrotherapy and that I began getting back into the water. One of the things we did on the course was set SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time specific). Both myself; and one other person on the course set ourselves the goal of swimming 1 mile at the Great East Swim the following year. My biggest challenge was getting into the water, part of CRPS is that you can suffer with Allodynia, or Hypersensitivity. This means anything touching my legs can hurt and, at the time it did. I was unable to go outside when it was windy because the wind hurt my legs, I was even unable to wear trousers for a long period of time because it was too painful! This all meant that water on my legs hurt too and I had to start with just sitting dipping my legs in the pool for 5 minutes, the next week I sat for 6 minutes, then 7 and 8 and so on until I was able to stand in the pool for 15 minutes, then it was finally time to try swimming.
The movement of the water was even more painful for me, but I kept pushing through the pain and slowly learnt to tolerate it, I gradually built up from swimming 4 lengths, to 8 and so on. After about 6 months I got up to swimming regularly for an hour; it was still painful, but I had learnt to tolerate it. The next challenge was getting a wetsuit on. The first time I tried to put a wetsuit on I cried and, in that moment, I had no clue how I was going to complete my goal of completing the Great East Swim. I tried again and again to get the wetsuit on but it was simply too painful and made me feel sick.
I explained my issue to my GP and he prescribed me with Capsaicin Cream and instructed me to rub it on my legs each day, twice a day. This sounded utterly absurd, I would effectively be rubbing chilli peppers into my legs, but I decided to give it a go. The theory is that the chilli pepper cream would make my legs burn and hurt intensely so when I put the wetsuit on it would make it seem like that pain wasn’t as bad. It took time and was horrible, but the cream did help and that in combination with me sitting watching the TV half in my wetsuit a month later I was able to have my wetsuit on and venture into open water for the first time in about 4 years.
I found a local community Triathlon club BRJ Run and Tri and they offered Friday sessions in the local lake so I went along. Everyone from the club was welcoming and supportive and helped me through my first few swims. The cold was painful but for the first time in ages I instantly felt free when I was in the water, I felt like things suddenly made sense and I could think clearly for the first time in years. Ever since then, I haven’t stopped. Open water swimming has become my life, and not only did I complete the Great East Swim 1 mile swim. I went on to swim a 3km event the same year, the following year it was a 5km, then a 10km and gradually I began to rediscover my identity as an open water swimmer.
Ever since getting back into open water I have noticed a lack of others with disabilities at events. I always had to contact organisers before signing up to an event to find out accessibility information, also to find out if they would actually allow me to swim at their event. After being called an inspiration and people encouraging me and saying that the swims I was doing were amazing I decided that in 2020 I would attempt to swim the length of Lake Windermere Two Way to try and raise awareness of swimmers with disabilities whom swim in open water. I also did it as a fundraising event for a disability sport charity.
I had worked hard during winter training focusing on my fitness and upper body strength into the lead up of 2020 but then Covid hit and all swimming stopped.
When Covid19 hit I couldn’t do any swim training but I kept up with the land training, however I didn’t feel that was sufficient to take on such a big challenge with so little sport specific training and eventually in June 2020 I decided to postpone my 2 way Windermere swim. Instead, I spent the rest of the year trying to raise awareness in different ways and in late 2020 I decided to start a Facebook group for Adaptive/Disabled Open Water Swimmers in the hope I would find other swimmers that have a disability and swim outdoors. I was overwhelmed by the response and ever since January 2021 life has been chaotic and a little surreal.
In January the number of people in my group jumped to more than 100 and I had messages from all kinds of people asking me questions and asking if they could interview me about the group and my Windermere swim. I was interviewed by The Outdoor Swim Magazine, Swim England and Living Sport, plus many more. It was through these interviews more people became interested in my Windermere challenge and so I started writing a blog about my training and my journey to Windermere. The Facebook group continued to grow, and we managed to create a kind, friendly and welcoming environment for all those that have any kind of disability who swim or want to swim outdoors! We managed to arrange a meet up for members from ADOWS at the Henley Outdoor Swimming Festival and it was the largest number of athletes with a disability that I had ever seen swimming outdoors in one place, it was incredible and showed me what changes I could make and was making in the world of outdoor swimming.
On September 1st 2021 it was finally time for me to take on Lake Windermere 2 way, I had been unwell and had emergency surgery to remove my gallbladder just 4 weeks earlier and as a result got in with the attitude of I will just go and see what happens. What happened was that I swam Windermere 2 Way solo in 16 hours and 41 minutes! The comments, feedback, requests for me to appear in podcasts and to be interviewed was overwhelming, as was raising £1600 for Arctic One.
There were no words for it but a couple of weeks later when I had done my write up of my swim I was contacted by someone from The Kendal Mountain Festival asking if I would be one of the speakers at their Outdoor Swim Session in a few months time. It was bonkers and I didn’t quite understand why they wanted me but I knew it would give me a huge platform to spread my word about being more accepting and inclusive when swimming outdoors. I agreed to do the talk and it was a totally surreal but incredible experience and has bought many new opportunities my way, some of which I am unable to discuss yet but one of my favourite is becoming a Swim Secure Ambassador.
Through all my campaigning for accessible swimming one of my biggest concerns has been safety and I always encourage people to be as safe as possible. One way I do this is by telling them to always swim with a buddy and always swim with a tow float. Ever since getting back into open water swimming I have used the Swim Secure products as they have such a variety of tow floats and the best bobble hats! My favourite product has to be the tow donut though because I am able to put nutrition and pain medication in the donut and access it during a swim making it much easier for me, especially on long swims.
Going forwards I have big plans, including taking on The Original Triple Crown Challenge which involves swimming the Bristol Channel, English Channel and North Channel. This is going to bring its own challenges, including finding out how I cope in the sea being unable to kick my legs and how being thrown about by waves affects my Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. It is also going to take time practicing to feed and take medication whilst in the sea as treading water can be difficult if my legs are very sore.
For now, though, I will be focusing on speed and skins swimming so that I can get used to swimming for long periods of time without the extra buoyancy and warmth I get in my legs from wearing a wetsuit. I am hoping to get as much sea swimming experience in as possible throughout the year so that I can learn the best ways for me to take on a channel swim! Alongside that I am hoping to do several long-distance lake and river swim events and hopefully some events in the sea too.
Through 2022 I obviously also plan to continue to raising awareness of open water swimmers with disabilities and hope to make my accessible swim spots map a reality. I want to continue growing the ADOWS Facebook group and hold some events and swims specifically for swimmers with disabilities.
My final plan for 2022 is to get my coaching business going, in 2021 I trained as an STA Level 2 Open Water Coach and also did my pool teaching qualification. This means that I will be able to offer safe open water coaching sessions, I will offer both group sessions and 1:1 sessions of a high standard where I am able to share my knowledge and expertise to help others achieve their open water goals.
You can follow Sophie's story on Facebook or Instagram or you can visit her website Sophie Etheridge Adaptive Athlete.