Having passed my 20th anniversary of living in the UK, and specifically in the beautiful town that is Henley, one of my first “best friends” when ai moved was the lovely Sue Brownlow. I first met Sue when we were doing our MBA at Henley Management College, back in 2003. What attracted me to doing my MBA at Henley (apart from the beautiful town and surrounds), was the fact that the Henley MBA was an international MBA, and we had study trips to Barcelona, Kuala Lumpa, Melbourne and Atlanta. What has all this got to do with swimming, I hear you say??!!
Well, while on our swim trips, myself and Sue (aka Swim Sue) managed to get a swim in most days - if either of our moods were down or we were feeling stressed, the other would be knocking on the door saying “come on… we’re going for a swim” - the phenomenon of the world seeming a better place after a swim never fails!!
Roll on the clock, and 7-8 years ago, Swim Sue went on a pretty intense campaign to get me into a wet suit and open water swimming - her memorable chant was “if Kate Middleton can do it, so can we!” After a few glasses of wine one night, Sue’s powers of persuasion won through. Patiently she had me (badly) swimming around Shepperton lake on Saturday mornings, but pretty quickly I got the bug for outdoor swimming and progressed to get properly coached on how to swim freestyle (refinement of which is ever evolving!), and the rest is history, as they say!
The last 3-4 swim seasons have been busy with the various Henley Mermaid challenges - the English Channel, Bristol Channel x 2, the North Channel and swimming the length of the Thames from the navigable source to Henley last year… With Perseverance and Persuasion being both of Swim Sue’s middle names, each year without fail, she has asked me to go on some amazing and exotic swim trips with her, but invariably there were clashes with Mermaid challenges, family commitments etc, and invariably I regrettably had to decline.
I think somewhere along the line, Swim Sue wised up to the timing of her approaches to me about swim trips for me to join her on, and late in 2022, she reached out to me about swimming the width of Lake Balaton in Hungary with her in July 2023. I had NO previous knowledge of Lake Balaton, or Hungary, but equally I had implicit trust in my pal’s choice of destination, and thought by to myself, “I’m not going to decline Sue’s offer again, and will work to plan all Mermaid activities around this one commitment!!
So, I’m just back home from a FABULOUS few days in Hungary, which is the first time for me. I LOVED Budapest - it is the cleanest and prettiest of cities, albeit has a sad backdrop of Nazi and Soviet oppression.
After a few days in Budapest with Sue and her brother Keith, we headed about 75 miles South West to Lake Balaton, which is rightfully known as “the riviera of Hungary”.
At 77km long, Lake Balaton is a sedentary lake which has a lot of minerals in the water, so it was like swimming in an ocean of alka steltzer. At a balmy 20-22deg C, the water felt lovely and silky, but you couldn’t see your hand anymore than 3-4” under water, which was a bit of a different experience for me!
With 11,500+ swimmers, the organisers had safety boats every 100m the whole way across the lake, which were like a guard of honour leading us to our destination - if swimmers got tired, needed to hydrate or needed medical assistance, help was always close at hand. The swim channel was about 250-300m wide, with paddle boarders and canoeists patrolling the waters - while there were no mandatory brightly coloured swim hats or tow floats (which are the norm for European swim events), the safety aspects of the event seemed well covered off, with swimmers also looking out for each other on the way!
Entries to the water started at 7am and finished at noon, and everyone had to be the other side of the lake by 3pm. There were lots of SERIOUSLY SERIOUS athletes there (many doing one armed press-ups!!), but for me, it was wonderful to see groups who set off with their sun hats & sun glasses for a 7-8 hour “chatty breaststroke” swim to the other side - it gave the event a real Mardi Gras type feel and made covering the distance more achievable for everyone, young and old. There were butterfly and backstroke swimmers too, although I couldn’t countenance almost 7km of a swim with either of these strokes.
Overall, the event had a bit of a “park run” feel to it, with very elderly people, young kids of 8-10 years old, and everyone else in between. Additionally, there were lots of skinny people, very overweight people, and everyone else in between - the wonderful thing about swimming is nobody worries about body image, profession, where you’re from etc - as a sport, it is a great leveller!
The event really captured the essence and joy of outdoor swimming as a hobby - everyone was in a good mood, swimmers watched out for each other, the sun shone down, the water temperature was warm and the scenery beautiful- what more could anyone want??!!
Although the water was very lumpy and wavy for most of the time, I completed the challenge in about 3 hours, which I’m happy with, given that I’ve been out of the water a lot this past 6-8 months (for various reasons)!
Next challenge for the Mermaids is a relay swim of Loch Ness in a few weeks time, and by contrast the water temperature for that will probably be around 10-12 deg c, which is another dimension to that challenge.
Back to my every persuasive and persistent pal Swim Sue - she has gotten in even earlier with a suggested swim plan for next year, and that is to swim a 3-4 mile circuit around Liberty Island in New York - this one I didn’t have to think about and it was an instant and emphatic YES….
As an Irishwoman, countless ancestors from my family emigrated to the USA in search of a better life - my maternal grandparents included, who met in New York and married in a small chapel at the end of Wall Street. A year or two later my mother was born in Brooklyn…. Despite the fact that my Mam’s family relocated back to Ireland, New York has a special place in my heart, knowing that many of my relatives and fellow countrymen and women’s first sight of life in America was the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, so swimming in their footsteps will be a very moving experience for me. A precise date for next year’s challenge with Swim Sue is yet to be announced, but expected to be sometime around September, so stay tuned and keep swimming!!