Finding a Sisterhood with Cold-Water Swimming
Updated: Jan 30
At 25, Sophie Hellyer walked away from both competitive surfing - she’d won British and English Junior Champion titles – and a successful career as a model. In a radical shift over the next five years, she turned her attention to ocean pollution, sustainability and ethical fashion, and has spearheaded a British sisterhood passionate about cold-water swimming. She talks to Storytellhers about the lifechanging and addictive benefits of immersion in Britain’s coldest waters – lasting friendships included.
I stopped surfing because it was bad for my mental health. I had been modelling too – travelling the world for various sports campaigns – so I was constantly comparing myself to other women. I knew I was never going to be the best surfer or the prettiest girl in the world. The comparisons to other women enhanced all these negative feelings, and so I stepped away from competing and modelling. I saw a therapist for a while and now, in my 30s, I’ve finally got comfortable with myself. I have prioritised female friendships, and my work now is about supporting other women and creating communities.
My first grasp of environmental issues in the water was surfing amid sanitary towels, condoms and tampons. The beach we used to surf in Devon has a wave that breaks along the sewage pipe, and the southwest wind would blow the sewage back in. I’ve heard in order to get blue flag beach status the water is only monitored in high season. The rest of the year it can get pretty dirty. So, growing up on the beach, I was always aware of the sewage issue.
A surfing trip to the Maldives when I was 26 made me change my habits for the sake of the environment. It’s postcard-perfect, but as it’s one of the most densely populated nations in the world with nowhere to throw rubbish, plastic pollution is really visible. The influx of tourists is huge and is a big part of the problem. The Maldives’ solution was to create ‘trash islands’, where the beaches are piled high with plastic. Of course, a lot of it gets blown into the sea. I knew when I got home that I couldn’t go on ignoring the issues.
I lived on an organic veg farm in Ireland and opened the country’s first eco-friendly surf shop and school. I went to Ireland for a Finisterre modelling shoot for 4 days and ended up staying over 4 years. I came back to Ireland from the Maldives holiday and it was the perfect place to change some of my lifestyle habits and slow down: to stop drinking from plastic bottles, switch to a Mooncup (which I flashed in my TEDx talk) and not to fly so much. When I make decisions, I try to consider the environment first: whether its buying chemical-free sunscreen, plastic-free deodorant, or local, organic fruit and veg. I also can’t go to the beach without doing a #twominutebeachclean which I encourage people to hashtag if and when they do it. We don’t have to be perfect we just need to be aware and try to make better decisions.
I first tried cold water swimming in the Atlantic off the west coast of Ireland – the water was 9 degrees and I managed about 30 seconds. A friend had just started the Wim Hof method and we talked about the benefits of cold showers. A few of us got chatting about it and decided to try our first cold water swim together. I shared time-lapses on Instagram, it inspired people and it grew. Rise Fierce is now a community of women who swim – or dunk or float! - all year round. We initially did it for health reasons, and the studies said a minimum of 2 minutes was needed, so that was our only aim. We rarely stay in long, and never for more than 8 minutes or so. Despite the shock of that first time, it was exhilarating. Cold water sea-swimming fast became an unexpected addiction and now I can’t imagine my life without it.
Cold water swimming stops me thinking and starts me feeling – it’s truly transformative.
I don’t cold water swim for health now – I do it for the rhythm, routine and challenge. It’s like playtime with my friends. You go in the water first thing in the morning and come out feeling like a superhero. I feel like a stronger person. Now I’m living by the sea in Cornwall, four of us swim together every day. You’re accountable to turn up when you go with others, and it’s safer than going alone. It’s how I’ve made my friends and community, and now it’s my business too.
I run Rise Fierce retreats, which are a combination of cold-water immersion, yoga, women’s circles and breathwork. They’re normally high-end five-day retreats, and I’ve hosted them all over the UK and Eire. We have a Rise Fierce private Facebook group for women – or anyone who identifies as a woman - to meet one another for cold water swimming. It’s been a great resource to create lasting communities everywhere. In contrast to where I started in the competitive worlds of surfing and modelling, I have made some of my best friends through cold-water swimming.
Why we should all try cold water swimming:
1) It’s a Natural High
The brain has a limited bandwidth and the cold forces you to focus on the intense sensations and your breathing, which doesn't leave you much capacity to worry about daily chores and life's stresses. Entering cold water gives you mental calmness and awakens you to your inherent physical robustness. The hit of dopamine and endorphins – the feel-good chemicals the brain produces – will leave you feeling high after each swim.
2) The Science
Cold water swimming is said to boost the immune system and improve circulation and libido. Although there is a whole raft of anecdotal evidence that cold water immersion can help cure modern diseases such as Crohn's, arthritis, psoriasis and depression, scientists are still reluctant to support this because there is so little data. Cold water may be a placebo. So what? It works for me even if we don't know precisely why.
Having a shared experience in which you are both vulnerable and exposed, but also empowered and resilient, is a bonding force – it's like a glue in your friendship. I also love the accessibility of the sport: almost anyone can do it regardless of age, gender or income, and there are places with dedicated facilities for people with disabilities. You don't need a wetsuit or any expensive equipment, just a dash of courage and a couple of friends.
4) Back to Nature
The majority of the UK's outdoor lidos are located in beautiful parks surrounded by acres of trees. Time in nature is proven to reduce stress and the risk of depression, and wild swimming always requires some degree of immersing yourself in the elements. I also think a connection to our natural world is an integral part of protecting the planet's wellbeing. Why would we care about the environment if we are entirely disconnected from it?
A Word of Caution
Cold water swimming has many benefits, yet immersion does also account for 7% of all injury-related deaths (WHO, 2014). If you do intend to try it, please read Sophie’s Guide to Cold Water Swimming before you get started.