Meet Rosalind South, Channel swimmer, cancer survivor and campaigner who, initially, could barely swim across a swimming pool and was afraid of the sea. Find out why she chose to take part in a Channel swim, how she trained and overcame her fear, and how the power of cold water swimming has transformed her physical and mental health.
Hey – tell everybody where are you based and what you do!
Hey!! My name is Rosalind and I live in Kent. I’m a sea swimmer, cancer survivor and campaigner.
How long has sea swimming been a part of your life?
I started sea swimming – with the aim of taking part in a Channel swim – in memory of Alex, my husband and father to our two young sons, who died in March 2019. I am also raising awareness of cancer in younger people. Alex passed away just six months after receiving a diagnosis of bowel cancer, aged 34. A week later I received a breast cancer diagnosis – my surgery was the day after his funeral.
It was an incredibly difficult time full of fear and sadness but after nine months of treatment I was given the all-clear and decided I wanted to do something to remember my husband for the brilliant man he was, and that would go down in history and be something to look back on with our two boys and feel proud of.
I chose to attempt an English Channel swim because it would be so challenging for me – I was scared of the sea, in particular the power of the waves and the current. It was also a hard hitting way to help raise awareness whilst also helping me cope with my grief.
I started to train in January 2020. I live ten minutes from the sea so I knew it was possible to combine training with taking care of my family but, at the time and due to my treatment, I was so weak I could barely swim from one side of a swimming pool to the other. The pandemic made training really tough too, but I persevered, training in sea water that was as low in temperature as 7ºC through the colder months (I wore a wetsuit for those sessions!) until I knew I was fit enough to comfortably manage the challenge. I teamed up with three other swimmers – two of Alex’s work colleagues and my best friend’s husband, to form our ‘Swim for Alex’ team and we crossed the Channel in relay on 2nd July 2021.
Tell us about your English Channel swim
It’s quite an undertaking! According to the Channel Swimming Association, more people have climbed Everest than have swum the English Channel.
You don’t just turn up and dive in – to qualify for a successful crossing your attempt has to be registered with the CSA who allocate you a tidal window of nine days in which to swim, and you must swim with one of seven registered pilots and boats. You’re not allowed assistance of any kind other than nourishment and pilotage. You’re even restricted on what you can wear – a ‘standard’ swimsuit that does not offer thermal protection or buoyancy.
One of the main challenges is coping with being cold (the sea temperature was 14ºC that day). I knew I couldn’t stay in the sea for more than an hour at a time because my hands get too chilled to swim properly – its known as 'the claw' when your fingers stop being able to stay closed in the water.
The swim to France is 21 miles, and we did it in sixteen hours and 45 minutes. We swam in rotation (one hour each) but as I did both the first leg from the beach in England and the last leg onto the beach in France, I did five hours swimming in total.
As I got into the water for the first time just after 4am on a very foggy Friday morning, I did have a moment of doubt: had I trained enough? Could I really do this?
Thankfully, as has been the case throughout all my training, the first five minutes was the hardest and where the majority of doubt was – after that my body seemed to settle into a rhythm and all the training paid off. I genuinely felt as good on my fifth swim as I did on my first. Given all that my body has been through over the last few years it felt incredible to feel that well and that strong again.
The whole experience was brilliant: the guys in the team kept the atmosphere on the boat fun and light hearted throughout, we had lots of laughs and really enjoyed ourselves.
To be able to start and then finish this challenge was incredible and it was a really special moment to swim into France with the sun setting. Touching the sand for the first time was AMAZING! I was incredibly emotional when I got back on the boat and am happy to admit that I sobbed.
How do you find a balance between being active and life’s other responsibilities i.e. work and family?
I’m a single parent to two small children so I either get a babysitter in order to be able to train or rely on my parents at weekends. I have come to realise that it’s so important to have time for myself: it is how I manage to keep going. To be a good mum, I need ‘me time’.
Is there anyone who inspired your love of the outdoors?
My trainer, Andy Stewart, who is also an Ironman athlete. We met through a friend: I put a request up on Facebook asking for a sea swimming coach and he was recommend to me. It turned out that he knew Alex because they’d shared the commute to work.
He swam with me, helped me to get fit and also helped me to get over my fear of the sea – mostly by telling me to ‘just get on with it!’ My other main motivation for overcoming fear was realising that my desire to meet the challenge was greater than my fear, and that the only person who could get me over that fear was me.
I’m no longer afraid of the sea but I am very respectful of its power and the fact that it is different every time you enter it. For that reason I never swim alone.
In the end I have got to a point with my fitness where Andy and I are able to push each other, which is a great feeling.
What is it about sea swimming specifically that you love?
Learning to embrace the coldness of the sea has been life changing. It imparts a feeling of being totally surrounded by nature, in the elements, and delivers a huge endorphin boost that makes me feel extraordinarily good.
I have a sense that water cleanses me of negative energy – I don’t think of anything at all when I’m swimming and my worries seem to wash away in the water. And the more intimidating the conditions, the more exhilarating the swim.
When did you discover FINDRA?
When I was asked to write this journal post!!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
“One, two, three, breathe”.
That keeps me going in the water but I guess it applies to life on the land too!
What’s the key message you would like to highlight to our followers?
Firstly, I urge everyone – get to know your body and don’t ignore changes or think cancer can’t happen to you because you’re ‘too young’. Cancer is far more likely to be treatable if it’s caught early!
Secondly, anyone can enjoy the power of cold water. You don’t need to be a great swimmer – just focus on the feeling of the cold water on your skin. If you can’t swim keep your feet on the bottom, bob up and down and get your shoulders under the water – it’ll give the same benefit.
That feeling of well-being from being in cold water is just incredible.
I will continue to enjoy sea swimming!
Also, we have set ourselves a target of raising £50,000 that will be split evenly be-tween two charities – Bowel Cancer UK and Team Verrico. With this in mind I’m organising a Swim for Alex charity ball which will take place in October.
We’re on the hunt for auction prizes if anyone would like to donate – if so, you can contact me at swimforalex.com.
Thanks Ros, you truly are an inspiration!
The Secret by Rhonda Byrne
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The Gambler by Kenny Rogers
“I chose this for the song list on the boat when we did the Channel swim and it ended up being used as the background music for the video we made. I love the words – it’s a really cool song”.