Jump directly to the content
WATER FEELING

I’ve swam in torrential hail, blistering sun and sub-zero temperatures — and it saved my life

DAWN Craig, 48, is a charity worker and lives near Peebles, MidLothian.

“Stepping into the cold water, my heart was racing. The sea was grey and choppy, and even though I was wearing a wetsuit I had goosebumps.

 Dawn Craig says wild swimming – swimming in seas, lochs and reservoirs in all conditions – saved her life
6
Dawn Craig says wild swimming – swimming in seas, lochs and reservoirs in all conditions – saved her life

Slowly, I began to swim, and as I focused on my body my nerves faded away. Sitting on the beach afterwards, I was on a high. It had been my first wild swim – and I was hooked.

For many people, weekend mornings mean a lie-in, then breakfast in their pyjamas. But not me.

Instead you’ll find me in seas, lochs and reservoirs in all conditions – I’ve even had to smash through ice with an axe to get into the water.

Wild swimming is more than a hobby: it has transformed my life. Seven years ago, I was so disabled by chronic pain I couldn’t get out of bed. Unable to bear my life any longer, I attempted suicide.

Every time I step into the water, I’m thankful I didn’t succeed.

I initially damaged my spine in 1994 when I slipped at a swimming pool on holiday in Turkey. Pregnant with my daughter Jodie, now 25, I was in pain but able to walk.

 The charity worker was experiencing unbearable chronic pain that had left her disabled, and in 2012 she tried to take her own life
6
The charity worker was experiencing unbearable chronic pain that had left her disabled, and in 2012 she tried to take her own life

I had to wait until she was a year old before I could have surgery to give my body time to recover from pregnancy and childbirth.

The op went well and for seven years I led a normal life, working as a homeless prevention officer and raising Jodie as a single mum after my relationship with her dad ended when she was 18 months old.

Then one day in 2002, I began getting excruciating pain in my lower back and legs. Despite X-rays and scans, doctors didn’t know what was causing it, and I was prescribed strong painkillers.

The pain worsened and I became less mobile and reliant on medication, even though it didn’t fully stop the pain. Family and friends helped care for Jodie, and I had to be medically retired at 35.

Sometimes I was bed-bound or could only get around the house on my hands and knees. Or I had to use a wheelchair, which I hated, so I became reclusive.

I was severely depressed. I had no independence, was in constant pain and unable to be a proper mum.

 After confronting her family and friends she sought help and was later told to try wild swimming
6
After confronting her family and friends she sought help and was later told to try wild swimming

So in 2012, while Jodie was on holiday with family, I took an overdose and went to sleep not expecting to wake up.

I did it in a moment of despair and frustration, so I didn’t leave a letter. Somehow, I woke up the next morning.

A few days later I told my family and they were devastated. I felt guilty because they’d helped me so much.

That darkest moment became a trigger for change. I confided in my GP and was assigned carers, equipment to help me get around and a physiotherapist, who recommended gentle swimming.

I was still in pain, but my mobility improved until I could get around with a walking stick. In 2015, I returned to work as a health and wellbeing practitioner for the charity Thistle Foundation.

It was my physio who suggested I try wild swimming. I was intrigued but thought it sounded crazy, especially in the Scottish climate.

BTW

  • Wild swimming is swimming in any natural body of water.
  • In Scotland, all waters are accessible, but there are restrictions in some areas in England and Wales.

However, after years of feeling I couldn’t do things, I decided to be brave and give it a try.

In December 2016 I got in touch with a local wild swimming group and arrived at Portobello Beach near Edinburgh.

I was apprehensive – it was so different from the leisure centre pool I was used to – but within moments of being in the water, I got it. It was cold, but so exhilarating.

I’ve since swum all over Scotland, including Loch Lomond, and in the Lake District, forging friendships with other swimmers.

If I was in pain, getting into the water – even just to paddle in the shallows – helped hugely. As my body has got stronger, I’ve regained my independence and it’s helped me heal mentally.

Swimming gives me time to think and reflect on what I went through and how far I’ve come.

 At first she was apprehensive but within moments of being in the water she realised how exhilerating it was
6
At first she was apprehensive but within moments of being in the water she realised how exhilerating it was

In summer, I swim almost daily, and in winter I go out at least once in the week and both days at the weekend.

I found getting into a wetsuit too difficult, so now I just wear a swimsuit and feeling the water on my skin is amazing.

I’ve swum with hail pelting down, in blistering sun and in sub-zero temperatures. I’m hoping to take part in a relay across the Channel next year.

I’ve never had a formal diagnosis of what caused my chronic pain, but one doctor thought I had Ehlers-Danlos syndrome – a rare condition that affects connective tissue.

 Now she says it gives her time to think and reflect on what she went through and how far she's come
6
Now she says it gives her time to think and reflect on what she went through and how far she's comeCredit: Anna Deacon

I’ve decided against getting tested for this as I want to focus on living now, rather than what was wrong with me all those years.

I haven’t had pain for a year now, no longer need a cane to walk and recently, I came off the last of my medication gradually with support from my GP.

Jodie is proud of me and how I’ve changed my life, and although I live alone now she knows I’m fine. I don’t recognise that broken, sad woman I was seven years ago. I have wild swimming to thank for that.”

  • Dawn features in Taking The Plunge by Anna Deacon and Vicky Allan, out now (£20, Black & White Publishing).
 And of course daughter Jodie is incredibly proud of her mum and how she managed to change her life
6
And of course daughter Jodie is incredibly proud of her mum and how she managed to change her life
Stacey Solomon’s sons scream in terror as shark swims up to the beach on Maldives holiday