For the first 19 years of my life, I was fully able bodied, fairly healthy and had no barriers to participating in both competitive pool swimming and open water swimming. However, after a cycling accident in 2011 I am now physically disabled, and it was only after my accident that I realised how ignorant I was – Open Water Swimming is sadly not an accessible or inclusive sport.

After any traumatic, life-changing accident, it takes time to recover and come to terms with living your life in a different way. I knew I wanted to get back into open water swimming, but the question was: How? How could I overcome the barriers stopping me doing what I wanted? How could someone that spends 90% of their time in a wheelchair, and can only walk short distances on crutches, access open water swimming – not only physically, but mentally too?

The answer? With help, support and understanding.

It took 5 years but after a Pain Management programme at Addenbrookes Hospital I slowly managed to get back into the pool. I struggled a lot with pain due to the water on my legs because hypersensitivity caused by my Complex Regional Pain Syndrome and it was over a month before I managed to be in the water swimming. However, once I was in the water, I remembered why I loved it so much. After about 6 months of working on being in the water and my swimming I moved into open water, which obviously came with its own challenges that I had to overcome.

Before getting into open water again I looked for help and advice but there wasn’t any, I simply had to try things and sometimes they worked and others they didn’t. In June 2016 I entered The Great East Swim, I was excited but also nervous. Once we arrived the first issue was actually getting to the lakeside; it was a long and difficult push across a field – wheelchairs and grass don’t mix very well and as a result my dad ended up having to push my chair whilst I was pushing it too! When we got to registration, I noticed people staring at me and no one else there with a disability. I felt out of place and it was unwelcoming and not accessible for a wheelchair, like they said it would be. I hoped that feeling and situation would be a one off but sadly at almost every event since it has been a similar story and in 2020 I suddenly realised that was wrong and that it should be accessible to everyone.

After realising a lot of swim venues and events were not accessible and that I was not the only person having these issues I decided to create a Facebook group with the aim of supporting Disabled and Adaptive Open Water Swimmers. I wanted to create a space where people would feel comfortable and confident to discuss the issues they face with other disabled open water swimmers and where they could ask for advice and help with anything to do with open water swimming. So, Adaptive/Disabled Open Water Swimmers (ADOWS) was created.

The group took off in January going from 20 members to over 100 in a 24-hour period, now, a couple of months in we have almost 300 members! However, not all of our members have a disability, some are carers of someone that swims or they are friends with a disabled swimmer and want to know the best way to support them, we even have coaches and event organisers that want to learn how they can become more inclusive.

My hopes when I started the group were to find other disabled swimmers like myself and form a support network, also to find ways to ensure that open water swimming becomes as accessible as possible to anyone who wants to participate. One of the ways I am hoping to do this is by creating a map that allows people to check out different open water swimming locations in advance, by asking a range of questions about the accessibility of each swim location and pinning this information for people to find and access easily. Questions we are asking people for the answers to include what car parking is like, how far entry to the water is from the car park and what the terrain is like, and if there is somewhere safe to leave a wheelchair or other walking aids whilst a person swims. Since the group took-off I have had many people contact me asking me to write blogs and articles, I’ve been interviewed for articles and also a podcast.

As well as the work I am doing on the Facebook group I am also going to be attempting to swim Lake Windermere 2-way. This mammoth challenge was originally planned for September 2020 but sadly due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it didn’t happen. The swim is now rescheduled and it is due to take place on September 1st 2021. My aim through doing the swim is to not only raise money for the disability sport charity, Arctic One. or them within raise awareness of disabled athletes and show what disabled swimmers in particular can do with the right help and support in place.

Alongside running this Facebook group I am also starting my own small Open Water Coaching business called SEAA Coaching based in Godmanchester and I am keen to work with other disabled athletes and to introduce them to the sport that helps me and that I love so much. If I can help just one person enjoy something that they want to enjoy, then everything I have done in the past year will be beyond worth it.

If you are interested in learning more, want to help raise awareness of outdoor swimmers with a disability or if trying Open Water Swimming for the first time is something you’re interested in then please contact me, Sophie Etheridge, via the ADOWS Facebook page.