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“Strength in Unity” on International Women’s Day

Today, March 8th, 2021 is International Women’s Day. With the Henley Mermaids being made up of three British ladies, one Australian lady and One Irish lady, we are somewhat an International swim team, albeit based out of South Oxfordshire in the UK. Despite the challenges of Covid, 2020 was a monumental year for us. As five middle aged women, each with different temperaments, different physiques, different careers, we are all united by the very treasured memory of having swum the English Channel on July 22nd, 2020.

We don’t regard ourselves as ‘elite athletes’, but more so as mediocre swimmers who have lots of room for improvement – yet, our feat of swimming the English Channel has captivated the attention and interest of people near and far. Our identity is that of a very tightly knit relay team made up of great friends, each bringing their own unique dynamic, creating our Mermaid team. This was recently commented on by my good friend Gabriel Kelly, who shared with me a picture on his office wall called “Strength in Unity”. A simple but beautiful picture, it depicts five sailors in a boat with a cross at the front of the boat – for me, it depicts a team working hard together, with ultimate faith in each other crossing the oceans, whilst all serving a higher power. When sharing the picture with me, Gabriel said to me “you’ll get this Joanie”, and indeed I was struck by the parallels of the five sailors and the five Henley Mermaids - while I think it’s fair to say that our antics can be somewhat less reverent at times, there is a palpable sense that we have created a platform which can be used for the greater good.

Such was the treasured memory for each of us in swimming the English Channel in July of 2020, that when Mermaid Fiona floated the idea of swimming the Bristol Channel in July 2021, we were all committed within a heartbeat – and so, our next adventure started.

By contrast, the British Channel is the second most tidal waterway in the world, and while not as common a swim challenge as the English Channel, it is growing in popularity. While the shortest distance between Dover and France is 21 miles, there are three possible distances for swimming the Bristol Channel – an 11 mile swim, a 16 mile swim, or a 25 mile swim from Illfracombe in North Devon to Swansea in Wales. While early days yet, the Mermaids are aspiring to do the longer swim, but this will be totally dependent on ramping up our distance swim training as spring progresses, as well as depending on the prevailing tide and weather conditions on the day. At any rate, should we succeed in our attempt to swim the Bristol Channel, we will be the first all-female team to complete it.

Having raised over £35,000 for Henley Music School through our English Channel campaign in 2020, this year the Mermaids have teamed up with a Not for Profit partnership called Sunrise for Brain Conditions, which acts as an event and fundraising platform for four Irish charities covering Huntington’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, Motor Neurone Disease and Multiple Sclerosis. was setup in 2015 to help raise awareness of these conditions in Ireland, as well as to raise much needed funding for researching cures, whilst providing tangible help for sufferers and families living with these conditions. With over 44,000 people diagnosed annually with these conditions in Ireland, funding and access to necessary medical and support services in Ireland is way behind where it is in the UK and other European countries. Suffice to say, a huge amount of work is needed on the ground.

Given the different nationalities within our Mermaid team, the idea evolved a few weeks ago about bringing in four British ‘sister charities’ covering these four neurological conditions, all working as a bigger united force behind the Mermaid’s 2021 Bristol Channel challenge.

While the causes of Huntington’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, Motor Neurone Disease and Multiple Sclerosis covered by these eight charities are ones that have touched each of the mermaids in different ways, they are causes that we are all passionate about and committed to. It is the first time ever, that British and Irish charities have come together to work in partnership around one event - this is something the Mermaids are very proud of, particularly given the recent fallout of BREXIT. With these eight charities collaborating with other international charities and research agencies, the Mermaids hope that we can do our bit spearheading a unified Anglo-Irish initiative around our relay swim of the Bristol Channel this July, and hopefully raise awareness and funding in the process.

The Mermaids have continued to swim outdoors in pairs over the winter months, but without access to pools or lidos during months of lockdown, we have a lot of ground to cover to get swim fit for the distances we will need to cover, in addition to preparing for the conditions we are likely to encounter in swimming the Bristol Channel. As a united force, we have managed to maintain our team spirit in zoom planning sessions, as well as on our WhatsApp group.

We are all desperately awaiting the UK lockdown restrictions to ease on March 29th. Like last year, we are praying for a mild spring so that we can start to ramp up our distance swimming and endurance training. We have already pencilled in several team training sessions in the sea, which we are really looking forward to.

Following our Mermaid zoom planning session this Saturday, I came off the call very reassured that, like my friend Gabriel’s picture, that there is indeed a very powerful “strength in unity” with the Mermaids, and this power, if channelled in the right way can do great good by amplifying the cause of these eight charities, and hopefully providing quicker and better access to medical expertise and support for the individuals and families living with these conditions across Ireland and the UK.

For more information on Sunrise for Brain Conditions and the eight British & Irish charities that we are supporting, please click here.

Happy International Women’s Day to all.

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