By Professor Greg Whyte OBE, former Olympic athlete in modern pentathlon - @gpwhyte

Smiling head shot of Greg

Open water swimming was a bit of an enigma back when I was a kid. I was a swimmer from the age of six, but pool swimming was basically all we ever did. Even if you looked at the Channel swimmers at that time they were a very unique group. I think it was probably the dawn of the triathlon that really sparked open water swimming as a popular activity. In 1989 I competed in the first triathlon in the UK, which had an open water swim.

I’d still say even when I trained David Walliams to swim the English Channel, back in 2005, open water swimming was still niche. When we swam open water to train we used to have people stop us and ask if we were okay; they either thought we had either fallen in, or that we were nutters. You swim in the Thames now and people don’t even notice you or give you a second look.

Most memorable swims

I think one of my favourite swims is still the Solent, which I did with you guys at Aspire. There was something really special about swimming from mainland UK to the Isle of Wight. Swimming point to point in a river or round in a circle in a lake is one thing, but swimming from solid land to solid land feels pretty spectacular. They’re the ones I really, really enjoy.

Greg underwater, smiling at the camera

If we’re talking in terms of sheer scenic beauty, the most beautiful swim I’ve taken part in is easily Nevis to St Kitts in the Caribbean. It’s a 4km sea swim between two cities. The water temperature is fabulous, it’s 30 degrees so it’s like a bath, and again it’s swimming from land to land, island to island. There’s even a lot of wildlife on that swim, like rays, turtles and some sharks (mainly reef sharks and black pointers which aren’t a problem). The media is good at fearmongering when it comes to animals like sharks and rays, but the bottom line is that the vast majority of wildlife is more worried about us than we are about them.

Thinking about it, when animals join me on a swim, that swim invariably becomes one of my favourites. It’s such a rarity. When I was training David, we were joined by a pod of pilot whales in the Gibraltar Straits which was a real honour because normally they’re scared of us and swim away. It’s pretty powerful to swim with them, in their environment. A real treat that doesn’t happen often.

Greg Whyte and David Walliams standing on a jetty

Relaxing in open water

I was doing a training session recently and somebody said to me, it always looks painful. Generally, that’s because it always is painful… I tend to get in for a purpose. I do make sure to have relaxing swims on holiday though. When I'm on holiday and it's not an official training session I’ll get in and just drift along and enjoy the environment. The beauty of going on holiday somewhere where you can swim is that you can just relax in the water.

Swimming with my kids I’ve found they’re fantastic as they don’t have the same fear adults do, they haven’t been sold the hype of sharks. So whenever I take my three open water swimming they absolutely love it, they dive straight in. No coaxing into the water with those lot. You can get decent wetsuits for kids now and that makes such a difference; they’re not built so well for tolerating the cold.

Anyone can be an open water swimmer

I think perhaps the greatest thing about swimming in general is that anybody can do it, irrespective of ability or disability. I was lucky enough to train the first paraplegic person to swim across the English Channel, a chap called James Wood, and it was just such an incredible achievement. This was after he crossed the Channel as part of Aspire’s first ever Relay Channel Swim.

He articulated beautifully that anyone can do it. For me, so long as you have the right support team in place, open water is a fantastic location to give it a go.

Most memorable coaching moment

Greg Whyte celebrating with Davina McCall on a podium

From a coaching point of view Davina McCall’s Lake Windermere swim is definitely up there in terms of the most memorable. It’s probably also the one I have been abused about the most because people were asking, was she going to die in there? She was always safe, but for me the thing to take away from that swim was that she made it. The sense of achievement for her was incredible. She has a real fear of open water swimming and the cold. It was a colossal achievement to get across Windermere. Often the message gets lost in the misery she had in the cold water but actually, every time I see her she still talks about the joy of making it. The key is it’s not about where, or times, or results, it’s just about starting and putting your all into something.

If our Solent Swim made it onto Greg's most memorable swims list it must be good. Take a look!

Solent Swims

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