April Blog: Sophie Etheridge

By Sophie Etheridge, the Founder of Adaptive and Disabled Open Water Swimmers (ADOWS), and with STA’s support aims to become the first person with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome to swim the English Channel solo this year. In this month’s blog, Sophie provides an update on her personal progress in April, which was a ridiculously busy month with some big swims and some fun coaching too!


I have still been building distance, improving my speed and my consistency too but, my main aim for the month was increasing the amount of open water swims I was getting and increasing the time I am in the cold water.

Although the weather is warmer and the sun has been shining, we have still been having some very cold nights and that’s resulted in it taking a while for the water to warm up and stay warmer too. I also had a week where I was unwell and didn’t get any swimming done. Despite that, I still managed to swim 65,600m over the month.

The month started with a rubbish swim; I was excited for Peterborough Lido to open but when I got there, I only did 1900m. Due to my train being late I ended up having less than an hour in the pool. I waited for the 30min break between the sessions but during the break got so cold that I talked myself out of getting back in the water. I did enjoy reading the sayings on the wall though, and this one really spoke to me.

The next day I had the pleasure of volunteering for the disability sport charity I am an ambassador for; Arctic One. Over the past few years, they have kindly given me small grants to allow me to take on my marathon swimming challenges, to get into coaching and to help me pursue and fight for the life that I want. You can find out more about them here.

The event I was volunteering at was a Try a Tri Day with the Community Interest Company Inspire 2 Tri, which helps those with disabilities and life changing injuries to become independent and helps them to realise their sporting goals and dreams are possible. You can find out more about them here.

On the day, I joined in with the morning run and cycle sessions being run by Mel Nicholls on my Invictus Active Rollers in my day chair. Mel competed at the London and Rio Paralympics, in Wheelchair Racing but now focuses on endurance events, you can find out more on her website.

I then spent the afternoon coaching the attendees in an endless swimming pool. It gave me the chance to work 1 on 1 with people, aided by video analysis in the pool to either help them improve their swimming or, find ways that would mean they could get into swimming; I was in my element and grinning from ear to ear!

Once the weekend fun was over it was back to training for me and it was Technique week!
First it was time to do my Critical Swim Speed (CSS) test to see how I am progressing. I was tired and sore after a busy weekend, but it needed to be done. I was absolutely thrilled with the results because for the first time in years my CSS was 1 minute 59 seconds – sub 2 minutes! I have knocked more than 20 seconds of my CSS time since January and the improvement in my times, stroke and confidence shows that all the training I have been doing is working well for me around my chronic illnesses.

It was time to focus on my technique and each swim session during the week I focused on a different element of my freestyle stroke using various drills. I also had my weekly personal training session in the gym and one of the things we have been working on is getting my heart rate up and keeping it up through a workout, both in the gym and the pool. As a result, at the end of each technique session I have added a minimum of 15 minutes of intervals and sprints. It was/is hard going, and I hate sprints but I can feel it working so it is going to be worth it in the long run!

The weekend came round quicker than I was expecting and on Saturday 8th April I did my first long lido swim of the year – 6500m. The swim still had to be done in 2 halves because of the session times but this time I had my DryRobe to keep me warm during the break so I didn’t get too cold.

Although I felt amazing and like training was going better than I hoped, my pain levels had gradually been increasing and my fatigue levels were getting too much for me to handle. I was also feeling a little unwell, so the fact it was recovery week was a HUGE relief! Even on a recovery week I still try to get some shorter and easier swims in and my weekly gym session too. I did also manage to get my first decent river swim in when I managed to swim with my head in for the first time without a brain freeze! I finished the week with a cracking swim at Lake Ashmore on the opening day of the season, I managed 1km but once I was out, I felt I could have gone further and wish I had.

I still wasn’t feeling great and didn’t want to do any training but I did go on a social swim in the river with the sun shining overhead. The water was 12.6 degrees and the company and views were incredible.

On Monday evenings I coach for the local Triathlon Club (BRJ Run and Tri) and as open water season is here, we have been working on some open water swimming skills in the pool to prepare those that have never swum outdoors before. I had come up with a lesson plan that I had been hoping to try for a while and the idea behind it was to get people to experience what it can be like in a lake when you can’t touch the bottom, or the wall and you have little choice other than to keep swimming. We set up the pool using my 2 Swim Secure tow floats set up at either end of the pool as ‘buoys’ and for the session people turned at the ‘buoys’ rather than the wall! We did some work on mass starts/deep water starts and some work on drafting and buoy turns too. It was a great session, the swimmers enjoyed it, gave great feedback and to be honest it was a fun way to coach too!

On Tuesday it was my turn to swim rather than coach, but it was a fairly easy swim as I also had a tough personal training session.

The exciting day that week was Thursday 20th April when I attended the STA Webinar from Autism Swim. I have a lot of experience working with those with mobility issues and physical disabilities, but limited experience working with those with ASD. As someone that is raising awareness and trying to improve access to those with disabilities I want to learn as much as I can so I can represent as many people with disabilities as possible! I somehow managed to also get a hard pool session in and a river swim in too; totalling just under 6km! To finish off the week of training I headed to Peterborough Lido for 2x 2 hour long swims bringing my weekly total up to a massive 23km, the furthest I have swum in a week so far!

The final week in April was, perhaps, the most exciting but also the most stressful.

To swim The English Channel there are certain requirements you have to meet. One of these is a medical assessment to see if you are fit to swim. Last year, I had issues with getting my medical signed off for my relay swim. I went to my GP and he refused to sign the form due to me using a wheelchair and my chronic illnesses. I explained I do not kick my legs when I swim but he refused to listen and informed me that I wouldn’t be able to swim if I couldn’t kick my legs. I did eventually get my relay medical signed by going privately.

Understandably, getting my medical assessment done for my solo swim was nerve-racking. I went to the same place that signed it last year, but it was a different doctor and from the moment I entered the room in my wheelchair I felt judged. For some unknown reason he went as far as testing the strength in my legs, which is obviously limited and painful because of my Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. However, I thought it was worth it because after lots of questioning, the doctor signed it off; I was so excited!

Three hours later I got a phone call from the doctor, he had consulted with his senior and decided to resend his signature from my form.

His main reasoning was discriminatory, and he said he did not feel competent enough to sign off a solo channel swim medical form. I knew that if I couldn’t get the form signed, I would not be allowed to even attempt the swim. I spoke to my pilot, who recommended a doctor that specialises in channel swim medicals. It was quite a drive to see him, but it was worth it, and I took Dave my STA duck with me for good luck!

When I entered his home for the assessment, I walked in using my crutches, rather than using my wheelchair. Interestingly, his approach to me was totally different, I don’t know if that’s because I was using crutches rather than my chair or if he was generally a better Doctor and less judgemental!

He asked about my medical conditions and reasons for me using crutches, but he didn’t try to see how strong and how much power I have in my legs. It felt like rather than a disabled person he saw me, not just my disabilities. It was refreshing to be accepted and understood that just because my legs are a bit rubbish, it doesn’t mean that I can’t be a confident and very strong swimmer. To say I was thrilled when he signed the form is an understatement – the swim suddenly felt one step closer. Of course, I celebrated that with a beautiful, sunny, happy river swim with lots of smiles!

On Thursday mornings my local pool has changed its timetable meaning I can now swim for 3 hours. On the final week of the month, I got in a long swim before going on holiday – 7500m in 3 hours; I was absolutely thrilled!!

Another exciting thing that happened that day was the announcement that I am a finalist a BBC Make a Difference Award! It is not something I would ever put myself forward for, or consider I deserve. I was initially nominated for the amount of work I have done and the awareness I have raised around getting those with disabilities swimming in open water. However, the competition organisers decided to change my category to the Bravery Award. This is “awarded to an individual or group of people who have shown outstanding courage defiance and duty in the face of perceived danger, fear or difficulty”.

Next up, training wise is getting in the sea, spending more time in open water and increasing my distances even further!
Monthly Stats: Distance – 65.6km, Approx time in the water – 25 hours
Association News, Open Water Swimming

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