It took quite a lot of figuring out to ensure that I could get to the Henley Outdoor Swim Festival but for me it was an event too important to miss this year! I have never been to the festival before, but I have done the Henley Swim Thames Marathon a couple of times and it was fantastic, tricky, a little complicated but great. From the first time I did the Thames Marathon swim I realised the Henley swim team go above and beyond what I’ve experienced at any other event to make it as accessible and inclusive as possible, to make sure everyone enjoys and completes their swim!
We had a very productive phone call and discussed everything from information about accessibility on their website to parking and disabled accessible toilets. Within about 48 hours, the Henley Swim team had already changed and added more information on accessibility to their website. This included information about the surface (grass, tarmac etc) around the parking and the event village, details on the entry and exits to the water and who to contact if people needed any specific help due to their disability. I also discovered that Caroline Hurley, the founder of Swimming Without Barriers (https://swimmingwithoutbarriers.co.uk) had been in contact with the Henley Swim team and managed to get a very kind volunteer to attend the event as an interpreter for those with a hearing impairment. This just made me smile even more than I already was! It was an incredible and heart-warming moment for me, after all the campaigning I have done an event organisation were listening to me, changing and improving things for the disabled community. I was so excited about the event and to make it even better we planned the first ever ADOWS Facebook group meet up (www.facebook.co.uk/adows), which is the group I founded for open water swimmers with disabilities.
The Henley Swim Festival came round a lot quicker than I thought it would and due to the other events, that I planned to do earlier this year that were cancelled this was my first event in over a year! I woke up at my friends feeling the strange sense of excitement and nerves, it was only a mile swim, but I haven’t swum less than 5km in an event for several years. I couldn’t decide if I should swim slowly and enjoy swimming along the Thames or if I should sprint and go for a time. We got MacDonald’s for breakfast (their bacon roll was a little disappointing) and went to pick my sister up before driving down to Henley. Getting to the event was pretty easy and we easily found it, but that could have something to do with the fact I wasn’t giving directions!
We arrived and the stewards sent us straight to the disabled parking area which was practically in the event village! The first thing I noticed was a disabled toilet, actually 2 of them! I have only ever seen a disabled porta-loo at one open water event, and it was a long walk/push from the event village and entry point so to actually use it used valuable energy that I needed for the swim. I had mentioned/highlighted previous issues with parking and toilet facilities at events when talking to Juliet from the Henley Swim team, so I was thrilled to see some of my suggestions come to life. Getting to registration was easy from where we parked so I signed in, found Juliet and went to find somewhere to sit in the shade where we could meet up with members from the group. Juliet kindly got another member of the team to bring over some chairs so that people would have a place to sit whilst we chatted.
It was great to sit and chat about one of the things I love most with people who can relate and understand.
I obviously have my own personal experiences of attending open water events from an ambulatory wheelchair perspective but not as an amputee, someone with a visual or hearing impairment. From talking to Caroline and hope we can keep in touch and work together on continuing to make the sport we love and coach more accessible and inclusive!
After our meet up, it was time to swim! I have a bit of a routine when getting ready to swim at an event, I know exactly where things are and what I am doing and normally what my plan for the event is but, on this occasion, I had no plan for the actual swim apart from making sure my wheelchair got from the start to the finish by the time I got there! Point to point swims like the Henley Mile can prove difficult for those that need any form of mobility equipment as you need someone to be able to carry whatever it is to the finish for you and in time for when you arrive at the finish.
As mentioned earlier, the Henley Swim organisation go above and beyond, and they had previously offered to take both my wheelchair on the Ops RIB boat and get it to the finish before I got there. The volunteers at the start seemed unaware of this arrangement but after radioing the boat the guy came and took my chair and to my delight also my TriRide with no issues at all. I didn’t see the boat again but when I arrived at the finish not only was my wheelchair there but my wheelchair had been set up and had the TriRide attached to it too, I was absolutely delighted! I had swum well, although I did get a bit over excited at the start, so my pacing was off, and I gradually died towards the end.
Everything accessibility wise had happened exactly as I was told and for the first time ever, I felt like I belonged at an Open Water Swimming event, I wasn’t the odd one out, no one treated me differently, or spoke to me differently and I didn’t even see any judgemental looks when I stood up out of my wheelchair and got into the river.
Overall, the only negative thing I can say that made any part of the event a bit tricky was the fact it is on grass but obviously there is grass on a river-bank/field! Grass isn’t ideal for wheelchairs, and I feel this could easily be solved by putting some sort of temporary flooring down, maybe rubber mats but I am aware that the number of wheelchair users does not make this a cost effective option. Besides that, I couldn’t say a bad thing about the safety cover, the volunteers, the organisers or the event!
So to the organisers at The Henley Swim Festival, thank you!
Thank you for listening, making the effort to understand and change so that more disabled swimmers can attend incredible events like the Outdoor Henley Swim Festival!