iTAB Star, Aug 2023
Melanie Barratt from Kenilworth, UK.
“Standing on the rostrum as age-group winner was almost as special as getting my Paralympic medals.”
Ex-Paralympic gold medalist Melanie, added to her success in the pool with a Triathlon World Championship medal before pursuing her ultimate passion of open water swimming. The accolades continued to come with a first-place finish at the Henley Swim Classic in her age group, and now she has her sights set on being the first partially sighted woman to swim the English Channel.
‘It’s just like nothing else. It gives you a natural high that lasts for eight hours, and it helps with your immune system, your blood pressure, your cholesterol levels, but overall the most important thing for me is it gives me such a good feeling and such a grounding in an almost like a zen-like experience.’
Melanie, on the benefits of cold open water swimming.
How did you get into Swimming?
I went to a school that was for blind or partially sighted people. I could swim, but I wasn’t very good at it at all. And then there was a local charity called British Blind Sports that came to the school and helped teach everybody to swim, and I had a friend who was very good at it so she would go off to these training weekends, and because I’m very competitive, I really wanted to do the same. Eventually I got picked to go to go and then went on to compete in national competitions and then international competitions. So, I think it was through school really, I was very lucky to get introduced to it that way.
When did you lose your sight?
My mum contracted toxoplasmosis when she was pregnant with me, which meant I was born with the sight that I have. So, I’m blind in my left eye which is a false eye, and my right eye can see shapes and colours. And because I’ve always had my level of sight, I’ve developed my own coping strategies and I can recognise things the way I see them rather than the way you see them, so it’s something that I’ve just evolved with and made the most of the sight that I’ve got.
What have you achieved in your career in the pool?
I had quite a long competitive career. I competed om national events and international events, Europeans world championships, and won gold medals are all of them, but the biggest achievement for me by far was competing in the Paralympics. I competed in Atlanta, in 1996 and Sydney in 2000, and I got gold and silver in Atlanta and a gold, silver and bronze in Sydney.
What came next after your career in the pool?
After I retired from swimming, I qualified as a training qualified as a physio. We’d had a tandem for a few years, just to go on for fun and I watched the tandem cycling on the Paralympics in Athens, and I thought wow, this looks really exciting, I’d like to give it a go. So, I contacted them and I had a go at track cycling and really enjoyed it and had then we carried on cycling at home and I did a bit of road cycling and then I got picked to go to a couple of competitions with British Cycling. I went to the World Championships in 2007. And I had the very disheartening experience of coming forth in four races, which is really disappointing, and because British Cycling is all about medals, they ended up dropping me from the team which was a real shame. But I enjoyed cycling, so I decided to combine it with swimming and had a go at doing triathlon. At the time Triathlon was a very, very new sport for the Paralympics and wasn’t a Paralympic sport at the time. So, I competed in the National Championships and I won that, and then went on to compete in Vancouver in the World Championships, and me and my partner guide won that in 2008. So, that was a fantastic achievement. There wasn’t a vast amount of competitors but it was great to be involved in something that was developing, and to do well to do well in it.
And I hear you’ve also completed the London Marathon?
I’ve always watched the London Marathon on the TV, it always looks an amazing experience. And then I go out for a run and think oh my god, I could never do this, but then once I did a triathlon, I actually quite enjoyed running. I was very, very slow at it and I don’t think my body likes it very much because it’s too used to being in the water, so it doesn’t really thank me for it, but I do enjoy it a lot. So, I decided to enter it. I ran it for charity for British Blind Sports. I did two actually, one in 2019 and my husband guided me for that, so we did all the training together, we had our ups and downs but it was a great experience. And then on the day it was exactly the way I wanted it to be, and I literally smiled from the start line to the finish line. Richard read out all the signs that people were holding up for me until he got too exhausted to think about that, it was just an amazing, amazing experience. Then we run it into 2020 when it was the virtual marathon, and that wasn’t quite as good because we basically just ran up and down the Greenway for 26 miles, not the same experience at all but is a great achievement. Lots of happy memories from that, but I don’t think my body can take me doing a lot of running. I had too many problems, swimming is a lot gentler.
So, for your Triathlon swimming how were you guided?
When I was doing the triathlon, we I had a guide who swam alongside me and rode the tandem with me and guided me when I was running. with the swimming, she wasn’t as fast as me, but she was almost as fast as me which kind of was a bit of a compromise. There were many different things that we experimented with and in the end we had a tether which connected our legs together at the ankle. Mainly, she wore a bright hat and because I can see colours every time I turned to breathe, I could see her hat and it worked okay, because triathlon is quite a short distance. But when I came to swimming open water for longer distances it just doesn’t work, because if you’re not equally matched pace-wise one person is going to get really cold. So, I had to find somebody who was the same pace as me, which has just been a real really difficult thing to do so we’ve had to come up with other ideas of how to how to be guided.
It took quite a long time to work out how I could swim open water safely, because most of the time, people who can see they look at objects in the distance and at obstacles around them, all of these things I can’t do. I can swim in a straight line, but I wouldn’t be able to swim around any obstacles or swim towards an exit or towards a buoy, or something like that. I wouldn’t be able to see where I was in a race. So, I needed to have somebody with me to make sure that I went in the right direction and didn’t bump into things. The solution that we came up with was my husband kayaking or paddle boarding next to me, and because he uses very bright clothes and equipment, I can see when I breathe to that side, and by doing that I was able to complete quite a few races. However, it was always a bit frustrating because he couldn’t talk to me, and he couldn’t communicate with me at all. So, the solution that we came up with in the end was using MyJukes, which is a radio headset that he wears to talk to me, and I have a bone conducting headset that I wear in the water, and he can basically talk to me all the time. So, it means that he can even walk along the bank and talk to me and give me guiding, and doing that has been made a massive difference over the past year for what I’ve been able to achieve, and what I think I’ll be able to achieve in the future.
What is it about open water swimming that’s so appealing?
That’s difficult to put my finger on exactly, there’s so many things. I think it’s being outside and the smells and the sounds and the feel of it all is so different. Just the feel of openness and being in nature and swimming for a purpose, not just swimming up and down pool but swimming to get somewhere to go on adventures or to get from A to B and to just do in effect what it’s designed to do. It just feels like it’s where I should be swimming. And to be a part of nature as well, and just be immersed in it is really special too.
What are benefits of cold water swimming?
The benefits are huge to your mental health and your physical health, it’s just incredible. If you’d told me three years ago that I would have gone to a lake that was covered in ice and swam in it and got out and felt amazing and just been in my cozi I would have said you’re off your head! It’s completely bonkers it, it’s a stupid thing to do. But, actually it’s just like nothing else. It gives you a natural high that lasts for eight hours, and it helps with your immune system, your blood pressure, your cholesterol levels, but overall the most important thing for me is it gives me such a good feeling and such a grounding in an almost like a zen-like experience.
I struggled to get to lakes and rivers because I can’t drive, so my husband bought me a barrel for Christmas which we’ve got just outside and I can just go and dip in there. for two minutes and my whole day is just completely different. It’s so much better. And I’ve started to realise that my day doesn’t really start properly until I go and do that. It’s just incredible the effects it has on your body. And all the scientific research is just uncovering more and more benefits. All about brown fat, which we don’t really tend to have so much anymore because we live in such a comfortable lifestyle, as we go from a heated house to the heated car to heated buildings. We don’t challenge our bodies the way we should do, and that means that we start to lose our brown fat which is just a tiny amount of fat around your nervous system. It generates heat for your body, and regulates your cholesterol and your insulin levels, so it has a huge effect on your weight and obesity. Scientists are starting to speculate that it’s one of the reasons why there’s such an increase in obesity after the age of 40 because that’s when all the brown fat goes, unless you challenge it by the cold air cold water exposure.
Is there a social and communal side to open water swimming?
Open water swimming isn’t really just about the swimming, especially in the wintertime, when we tend to just do ‘bobbing’ where we just do breaststroke and talk to each other and have a chat. It’s very social, and the open water swimming groups are all incredibly supportive. I think it’s a very small minority that actually race, most people just go for the experience of being in nature and for the togetherness, and the support with other people that are like-minded. It’s such a lovely, lovely community and you really don’t have to be a racing swimmer. It’s just all about the experience more than anything else.
‘In 2024 I’m booked to swim the English Channel, and if I’m successful, I’ll be the first blind woman to do it. So, there’s a lot of swimming to be done in the next couple of years.’
Melanie, on her next major goal.
How did your competitive open water swimming begin?
Once I started doing open water swimming with one of my friends, I really wanted to target to work toward so I looked at open water swimming events that are on because I wanted to be able to swim a distance and to achieve it just for myself not to compete, but just to experience it. So, I looked at what was around and entered a 10k event, which seemed like a good idea at the time. But then, as I started to train I realised just how far it is. To put it into context, in a local swimming pool 1 kilometre is 40 lengths, so it’s 400 lengths. It’s a long way, and I wanted to do it just by myself. I wanted to just go and swim it on my own and just achieve it for myself. But I started to realise very quickly that this just would not happen, and that was when I came up with the idea of Richard guiding me on the kayak.
So, I swam an event at a lake in Snowdonia, and it was all laps or 2.5 kilometre laps, I had a wetsuit on but the water was really cold. It was very windy so there were waves in the lake and we were getting blown all over the place. I got really, really bad cramp in my legs which is very strange. I haven’t had it since luckily, because it was horrifically painful, but I carried on swimming and managed to follow Richard okay. I wasn’t aware of anybody else that was involved. I didn’t see anybody else. Couldn’t see anybody else, it was just me and this grey Snowdonia lake and Richard for three odd hours. So, it sounds like a pretty grim experience, but actually, the sense of achievement I got from doing it was just amazing. It was almost as good as winning medals in the pool. I didn’t I didn’t come first, second or third, but it was a personal achievement that I was really proud of because I didn’t think that I’d be able to do anything like that, and with Richard helping me I managed to complete it, so it was that was a fantastic achievement.
Once I’d done that, I was then hooked and wanted the next event. I’d always wanted to do the Thames marathon, which is organised by Henley Swim, and I’d heard that it’s a great event to do. It’s a very long way, 14 kilometres, from Henley to Marlow, so we had to negotiate three locks along the way. I really wanted to try it and Henley Swim were incredibly helpful, they’re the most helpful people that I’ve ever been involved with when it comes to my swimming. It was it was just fantastic. They were really happy for Richard to kayak with me to give me any support that I needed. It was a brilliant experience for both of us, very busy, very different to the lake. There were a lot more people swimming, so that was something that was quite tricky because Richard obviously couldn’t talk to me. This was before we had the MyJukes headsets so he couldn’t talk to me to explain where I was, or where everybody else was. I just had to kind of swim and try and follow him. I think the only way that I got through that race was because I managed to find somebody who was exactly the same pace as me. I just stayed with her for the vast majority of the time, which was very good of her and that really helped. Henley swim just were just fantastic, so I went back last year and I competed in their events again. I competed in the Thames marathon again, this time with the MyJukes so Richard was able to communicate with me all the time and telling me where everything was, how far I had to go, and where everybody else was, and how far away the exit points were for the locks. So, I had a lot more of an idea of what was going on in my mind, and I was able to actually swim properly, as hard as I could, and he was also able to tell me how much time I had left. I’d set myself a target of four hours and when we left the last lock, he told me that I had half an hour to go, and all the way down the last stretch he was giving me minute countdowns to go four minutes until I could see the finish. So, I was able to put a real sprint finish on and I managed to cross the line with 30 seconds to spare, so I was really pleased with that. I swam so hard though I was exhausted for a week afterwards, but what was brilliant was I came second in my age group. So, this year, maybe I’ll go back and win it.
What other Henley Swim events have you competed in?
I also swam in the Henley classic. I wasn’t originally down to do it and I hadn’t planned to do it, but a friend had to drop out last minute so I had a last minute place. The Henley Classic goes along the same course as the Henley Regatta, so it’s a dead straight piece of river. Because Richard couldn’t make it we had to be there at four o’clock in the morning because the race has to be done before the Regatta starts, so I went with a friend and my thinking was I could just swim along the bank in a straight line doing breaststroke and just to experience the whole thing, but I took my radio headset just in case. When I got there, one of the volunteers offered to help guide me so she wore the radio headset and walked along the bank while I swam. She was a swimmer, so she knew exactly what she had to say and what I needed to hear, so I literally was able to put my head down and just swim as hard as I could. It was a relatively short race, I think it’s about 2.5 kilometres, so not too far, and I basically just sprinted, and I got to the end and found out I’d won my age category. So it was that was probably one of the things that I’ve been most proud of out of everything that I’ve done, because I was racing against everybody else who were fully sighted, and I was able to beat people in my age group. It was just a fantastic morning, it really was incredible to go from not even taking part to winning, it was just brilliant, just lots of happy memories from that. Standing on the rostrum as age-group winner was almost as special as getting my Paralympic medals
What are your future goals?
I’ve got several targets for this year. So obviously, there’s the Thames Marathon that I want to complete, and I also want to swim Windermere again because I did it in a wetsuit last time and this year, I want to do it on my own just in my costume. And I’m also taking part in a relay across Lake Geneva, which is 70 kilometres with five teammates. So, that’s going to be an incredible experience. And then next year in 2024 I’m booked to swim the English Channel, and if I’m successful, I’ll be the first blind woman to do it. So, there’s a lot of swimming to be done in the next couple of years.
What advice do you have for anyone interested in giving open water swimming who are partially sighted?
So, if anybody wants to take part in swimming who are blind or visually impaired, then there are ways to go about it and people that can help you. British Blind Sport is a charity that supports people who want to get into any kind of sport, not just swimming, but if they just fancy keeping fit, doing a gym classes or football, cricket, tennis, they’ve got a massive range of sports that they can advise on. They have a very good development system for swimming as well, Swim England, I’ve had a lot of associations with them over my time. They also have a good system to help people with blindness get into swimming, and to be taught to swim as well. Then from an open water point of view, it’s really a new thing, I don’t know of many people that do it who are blind and that’s why I’m trying to promote it and trying to encourage people to try it because of the health benefits of open water swimming, and cold water swimming, it’s just incredible, and it’s a shame that blind people might miss out on that. Also being in the community and making friends is a big part of the swimming experience, so I’ve actually set up a group on Facebook called Blind Swim Buddies, to try and link up people with somebody in their area that can help them if they fancy giving it a go, even if it’s just going down to the local river and having a bit of a dip and a chat and a cake and a tea afterwards. It’s a fantastic way of getting out and being in nature and getting the cold-water buzz and trying something new, but it’s very difficult for people who are blind to do that. So, this group is trying to connect people who want to help with people that need help. So that’s my group blind swim buddies on Facebook.
Thanks Melanie, you’re a star!