Henley Swim makes a splash
OPEN water swimming may be big right now but all Olympic swimming races were held on open water before they switched to pools in 1908.
The sport’s blossoming in Henley began almost 20 years ago when two former rowers decided it would be fun – and a little bit naughty – to swim the regatta course at dawn.
Tom Kean and Jeremy Laming took the plunge in the summer of 2004 and swam the legendary 2.1km Thames course, starting at 4am, accompanied by a single kayaker. The idea caught on and proved so popular that in 2008 it became officially known as the Henley Classic, attracting competitors from all over the world.
Thus Tom and Jeremy became the founders of Henley Swim, the business which now also organises the Henley Swim Festival, the Thames Marathon and the Club to Pub event, its mission to deliver a range of swims for the experienced and the enthusiast alike.
“I think if you had asked us back in 2004 if we had any idea what we were starting we would have had no idea,” admits Henley Swim’s director of operations Juliet Hume.
“But in recent years it has become apparent that the demand for open water swimming is growing massively so we work hard to be able to offer safe, supervised swims in stunning locations.”
Henley Swim’s four summer Sunday events this year are expected to attract at least 4,000 swimmers, beginning with the Selkie Henley Classic on June 26, followed by the Henley Swim Festival on July 10, the Club to Pub event on July 23 and finishing with the Thames Marathon on August 14.
Juliet says: “We welcome everyone from racing swimmers to heads-up breaststrokers.
“Children aged eight and up can swim at the festival and we have had swimmers aged over 80 taking part.
“The Club to Pub is more recreational and at 1.5km is doable on much less preparation and all our events are pretty much half and half men and women.”
The Selkie Henley Classic, however, does require an early start with registration starting at 2.30am and the first swimmers are in the water at 4.30am. Juliet says: “We have to be out of the water by 6.30am so that the rowers can get on to the regatta course to train. Most people are back home and have had breakfast before their families are even awake.”
The Henley Swim Festival has events for all ages and includes camping, music and stalls with food and drink available. The Club to Pub swim begins at Henley Rowing Club and finishes at the Angel on the Bridge with a beer and a medal for participants which doubles as a bottle opener.
The Thames Marathon and half marathon are endurance swims of 13km and 5.5km, beginning in Henley and finishing in Marlow.
For Juliet and the Henley Swim team it is thrilling to be returning to normal now that the pandemic restrictions have ended. She says: “2020 was particularly tricky. The Thames Marathon was cancelled altogether but we were able to postpone the other three events and hold them all in a single weekend in late August.
“This was during the small window between the first and second lockdowns and was pared down with tight covid restrictions.
“In 2021 we held all four events but it was the uncertainty during the planning that was the hardest as we had no idea whether we would be able to hold the events and what restrictions would be in place.
“In the end, the first two were still under social distancing regulations and by the second two, the rules had relaxed a little but everyone was still on high alert. “Both years we made changes in all practices but we are lucky to have lots of space and as they are outside events and controlled with detailed risk assessments and covid delivery plans, they didn’t fall under the same rules that existed for private gatherings.”
The unexpected benefit of the pandemic was, of course, the growth in popularity of open water swimming as a sporting hobby. Juliet says: “Lockdown and pool closures led many swimmers to try outdoor swimming for the first time and many have never looked back.
“In 2004 it was really unusual to swim in the Thames but now it is unusual to walk along the towpath in the summer without seeing the bright hats and tow floats of open water swimmers.
“Our events bring these groups of swimmers together and allow them to swim in races they could not normally easily access.”
This year, as ever, Henley Swim will be relying on an army of volunteers who ensure everything runs smoothly on each occasion. It is also proving attractive to a growing number of sponsors and last year the Swim Festival was rated the best on Racecheck, the Trip Advisor equivalent for mass participation sporting events.
“As for the future, we plan to continue to deliver high quality, well-organised open water events,” says Juliet.
“For 2022 we are sticking to our four existing ones but maybe in the future we will branch out to new locations and formats and help even more people discover a love for open water swimming and all the physical and mental health benefits that go with it.”
(The Club to Pub swim is already sold out but it is still possible to register for the other events by visiting www.henleyswim.com).