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Why I swim In conversation with Sophie Helleyer

Why I swim: In conversation with Sophie Hellyer

Thinking about taking to the water for a wild swim? Unsure of where to start? As wild swimming and cold-water therapy continues on its meteoric rise to wellbeing staple, we spoke to ex-surfing champion, and open water swimming coach, Sophie Hellyer to get her thoughts, tips and tricks for getting into arguably the oldest of health habits – wild swimming. Now the founder of wild swimming retreat, Rise Fierce, Sophie’s helping other women discover this experience for themselves. So, if you’ve ever wondered who you’d be if you got out on the water, read on to find out what you’re missing.

Why I swim

Nestled high up on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, there's a hidden quarry of blue spring-fed water – it's a serene spot where a deep and often chilly lake is enveloped by vast granite rocks. Oddly enough, it was featured in the music video for the song 'Why Does It Always Rain On Me?' by Travis. It’s one of my favourite places to go cold-water swimming in the UK – and believe me I have a long list!

My passion for being immersed in water started young, thanks to my dad, who taught me to surf as a child, and led me on a path to become a National Junior Surf Champion aged 14. As a professional surfer, I travelled all around the world, often to countries with balmy waters like Indonesia, Fiji and Tahiti, but it wasn't until I was much older that I turned my attention to cold water.

Why I swim In conversation with Sophie Helleyer

As my surfing career wound down, I found myself living on the west coast of Ireland. One day, in the depths of winter, my friends and I agreed to plunge into the Atlantic Ocean without our wetsuits on. Two very chilly minutes later, I felt overjoyed. This playful moment, the mental challenge, the camaraderie – it was an experience that lifted me for days and one that I couldn't wait to repeat. Since then, I've been a regular cold-water dipper, whether it be at my local beach, on the moors, or in a wheelie bin in my back garden filled with tap water and ice!

What is it that I love so much about being in cold water? It’s tricky to put the feeling into words, but the moment I go under the water, it’s like I'm hitting a big reset button. The water always gives me a sense of calm, a sense of being washed over, cleansed, and connected to something bigger.

Why I swim In conversation with Sophie Helleyer

I especially love to swim in tidal locations, where the sea dictates my schedule. I find myself checking the moon's phases, the wind and the swell, letting myself flow with nature's rhythms. There’s something magical about the way the water changes minute by minute: sometimes it's glassy and welcoming, sometimes it’s icy and challenging, but it always holds you.

I swim as regularly as I can and it's become an important 'survival' ritual for me, helping me to deal with life's big emotions, stress, anxiety and the experience of motherhood on a daily basis. I know it works for me, and it was no surprise when I first learned that scientific research showed greater exposure to 'blue' spaces (water) correlates with improved mental health and general wellbeing.

Why I swim In conversation with Sophie Helleyer

Cold water swimming is still a fairly new area of research, but there is strong anecdotal evidence that cold water immersion can alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. Studies from the likes of researcher Mark Harper have proven outdoor swimming helps reduce inflammation, the cause of many health issues. It’s even being proven to slow the onset of dementia and repair some of the damage it causes.

Not long after that first icy dip in Ireland almost a decade ago, I created my own business called Rise Fierce in a bid to share the power of cold-water swimming with other women. My business model is pretty simple: I encourage a bunch of women to get into the sea (supervised by myself, a qualified lifeguard and open-water swim coach), hope they find joy in it, and see how much calmer, stronger and more resilient they feel when they emerge! I host women's retreats around the UK and also incorporate breathwork, movement and women’s circles into the programme. It's a nourishing experience and one that allows me to live out my passion every day.

Why I swim In conversation with Sophie Helleyer

Since my son was born two years ago, I've greatly enjoyed introducing him to the water – his first swimming lesson in a heated pool was when he was three months old – and I’ve recently qualified as a baby and pre-school swim teacher. There is something really gratifying about introducing young children to the water and equipping them with the life-skill of swimming. Hopefully when he's old enough, my son will choose to join me for some cold-water dips.

If you're feeling inspired and you're wondering how, or where, or when to start cold water swimming, the answer is easy: take a buddy and go somewhere safe (don't enter the ocean if you don't understand tides and rips, and certainly don't jump off a cliff-top like the stuntmen in the Travis video), take a hot drink and warm clothing, and don't push yourself to extremes. You don't need to smash records, or stay in cold water for ages, or compete with anyone. You're there for yourself, for the experience, for the feeling, for your wellbeing.

Every single time I swim, I feel connected, calm and capable. I'd love for you to feel that too.

If you’re inspired to take the leap into some cold water, then head to Sophie’s Instagram to see what you’re missing or go straight to the Instagram for her cold water swimming community: risefierce, or website to find out where the next women’s day retreats are!