Laura Owen Sanderson has overcome a life changing illness through wild swimming and found a greater connection to the natural world.
Laura's now making a stand for the natural environment, and to protect wild waters and wild spaces across the UK. This week a new film, Hydrotherapy, tells her story of adaptation, strength & rewilding set in the raw and beautiful landscapes of Snowdonia National park.
We were lucky enough to ask Laura a few questions about her journey into outdoor swimming. We're definitely looking forward to jumping in the water now!
How does wild swimming make you feel?
Open water swimming is totally different from being in a pool. Like most things in modern life, they are rigid and controlled. Whereas wild swimming is much more about finding a connection to you’re the environment and being present. It’s hard to explain, but swimming on my own is the only time where I can get out of my own head, and really connect with my surroundings, sounds, and my own physical body.
Why did you start wild swimming?
Growing up the sea was a huge part of my life as my mum was a competitive diver. She brought me, my brother and sister up to be comfortable in the ocean, but then I stopped swimming in my late twenties and early thirties because I didn’t want to be seen in a swimming costume. After I got ill in 2018 I realised how short life really is, I didn’t care about wearing a swimming costume, and I started swimming throughout the winters. I haven’t looked back since.
How did you decide where to go swimming?
I live in on the coast of Snowdonia, so my first port of call was the sea, but I am also a stones throw away from mountain lakes and rivers. I knew many of the lakes and rivers from mountain walks and hiking so it wasn’t too hard to think of good spots! I am also a big fan of digging out paper maps and hunting for the blue spots. Otherwise Kate Rew the founder of The Outdoor Swimming Society, started the wild swim map, which is a crowd sourced map full of swim spots. It’s a great place to get you started.
What were your biggest considerations when getting into wild swimming?
When I first started out I had a lot of fears around open water! I thought I was going to immediately get cold water shock, or that I would be sucked under in lakes by hidden currents. So I educated myself on water safety. I am now a trained open water lifeguard. Knowledge is power and I wouldn't start a new activity that has risks without educating myself first. The sea is a daunting place, so before getting out there, it really is worth brushing up on your understanding of tides, currents and slack. The Survive section on the OSS website is a great resource for learning the basics. There are also some great apps out there like Magic Seaweed so that you can check the tides.
Do you have any powerful memories of wild swimming?
My absolute favourite swim experiences are almost always in the sea. I love swimming with marine life, and the energy you get from the waves is so different to any lake or river. I’ve swum with huge shoals of sand eels, with dolphins along the coast of Harlech beach, and watched spider crabs scuttling across the seabed although these sightings are becoming few and far between.
Last year I went snorkeling with a group of friends just off our local beach, and the only marine life we found were hundreds of jellyfish, including species such as the Aequorea victoria who are not native to our waters. Seeing first hand the changes in our seas that hit home the rate at which our climate is changing. Swims like those are the most powerful, because they remind you that we are sharing the planet with other species and we need to do everything in our power to reduce the human impact on our natural environment.
What’s your favourite place to swim?
During the winter mountain lakes are beautiful. But my favourite place to swim for the health benefits is the sea. I can spend hours snorkelling and swimming around the coast in the summer, and the sea salt is great for my joints. There is nothing better than the exhilaration you get from being in the waves, and swimming with marine life. I’ve swum with dolphins, spider crabs, and great shoals of sand eels, however these sightings are happening less and less. Last year I was snorkelling with a group of friends near our local beach, and we came across hundreds of jellyfish including species that aren’t native to our waters.
I also like to find places off the beaten track where I can escape into the wild, as it’s never the same if there are a large group of people. Having said that, you should always take someone with you for safety, make sure you have phone signal and have assessed how you will get in and out of the water. Cold water can affect your ability to move your arms and legs so always look for a sloping shelf where you can crawl out of the water if you get into difficulty.
What would you say to someone who’s on the fence about whether to do it?
Don't knock it until you have tried it! It is one of the best things I have ever done. Yes, it is cold initially and sometimes not very appealing at all, but I guarantee once you have been swimming you will feel amazing. Start off with a little dip, get in gradually (never jump/dive in) and give your body a chance to acclimatise slowly. Embrace the discomfort, you won't regret it.
And here's the film! It's captivating and beautiful. Thank you, Laura, for making it and thank you for sharing your thoughts.