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“When I’m swimming and challenging myself, I imagine I’m at the end of the pool saying ‘keep going, keep swimming’,” Nathaniel Cole, 27, tells HuffPost UK. “It’s that inner voice in my head telling me to keep going, telling me that I know I can push myself.”
Nathaniel, who describes himself as an anxious person, finds solace in swimming – more specifically, social swimming. As a young boy, he was always in the water – “My mum always always had to check I was safe when I was swimming on holidays” – but when he got into his 20s, the hobby dropped off. It wasn’t until he was training for the London marathon and was advised to do one day a week cross-training that he decided to pick it up again.
Fast forward five years, and Nathaniel has gone from a solo swimmer to co-founding a Swim Dem Crew, an inner-city swim club. In a bid to pursue his own love of the sport, he’s transformed an often solitary pursuit into an inclusive and empowering community.
“A part of my purpose is swimming,” Nathaniel says. “I’m super anxious so if I’m having a depressive bout, it helps. It helps build my inner confidence. At Swim Dem Crew, we’ve all become close friends and our guards have been let down. No one can take away that time in the pool from me, it’s such a good thing for me to do.”
Swim Dem Crew was born out of Run Dem Crew, which works in a similar way – a community of runners who get together regularly to connect and support each other, while getting active. Nathaniel, from East London, was part of the running group when he began swimming again. He noticed on Instagram that a few runners from the group were also swimming on their days off, so he suggested they swim together.
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He and two friends, Peigh and Emily, started swimming together and started to use #SwimDemCrew to tag on their posts and before long people started messaging them asking to join. “We thought we can do something different, we can make a community out of this,” he says, and so they opened up their Saturday swimming sessions to invite others to swim then get breakfast afterwards.
In the past five years, the growth of Swim Dem Crew has become a huge part of Nathaniel’s life – he swims twice a week with the group.
Monday’s session is about training: he and the others will push themselves. They often focus on one stroke during this session, whether that’s butterfly, backstroke or front crawl. Once a month, there will be a monthly sprint test where they see how many lengths they can swim for 30 minutes and compare that to the previous month. After the intense session, they often go for food together.
On Saturdays, it’s a more of a social and relaxed swim, combining a medley of strokes. “For me, it’s about starting the weekend off right and seeing your friends,” he says, adding that the session is far less focussed:“It’s more about community and family. I believe in that power of community.” It’s this day of the week the group tours pools around London – sticking at the same pool for two weeks generally. They work clockwise around the city and will sometimes cycle out further afield to a pool if they think it’s worth it.
“I always want to make sure everyone has a good time, but once we start swimming, the focus is on that,” he explains. “The only time you talk is when you’re not swimming. It helps me destress. I take pride in the work I’ve done for myself. It doesn’t matter what level you are, you’re doing something and you’re moving. I always, always feel better after a swim.”
His favourite stroke used to be backstroke, but is now breast stroke: “You have to glide a lot more in the water and I’ve come to appreciate that technically.” Nathaniel calls swimming a “masked exercise”, because as well as the mental benefits, he always feels physically that he’s done a great workout after ending a session, feeling his legs aching. But also, and perhaps more importantly, he has fun.
From May onwards, Nathaniel will be touring the outdoor lidos around London, some of which are *gasp* unheated. Despite not enjoying the cold water as much, he loves the feeling of swimming in the sunshine with blue skies above. At one point last year he queued up for an hour in the heat – at what he calls his “peak of unemployment” – at Tooting Bec Lido. “I was so happy once I was in that pool,” he says. “I was in the water for so long, not wanting to get out.”
So why does Nathaniel believe social swimming should be on everyone’s agenda? “It’s a full body workout without even realising,” he says. “You’re weightless while you’re in the water (and I’m tall and big so that’s nice) and it’s surprisingly quiet mentally. Lessons are worth their weight in gold and you never know who you’ll meet.”
Speaking about the future of Swim Dem Crew, Nathaniel says he wants to continue growing the community and making it stronger, while also making swimming more social and feeling less closed off. “I want it to be seen as something fun,” he adds. “It’s a life skill everyone should know. It’s not for the elite.”
Watch a short documentary – called ‘Beyond The Blue’ – that explores the origins of Swim Dem Crew below.