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Wild Swimming
Hannah Maia tells a story of womanhood, miscarriage, and learning to love yourself in your own skin, all through discovering her love for a sport – wild swimming

Hannah Maia has taken the adventure film world by storm – not only with the debut of her film My Big White Thighs and Me, which has gained recognition at some of the biggest film festivals for adventure and extreme sports, but also because of her personal story of rebalancing life by taking a plunge at wild swimming. 

Most notably picking up awards for Best Film Gold Award and Best Women in Adventure in the local Sheffield Adventure Film Festival, as well as an honourable mention from the jury at Kendal Mountain Festival, her film has also screened at Hope Valley Adventure Film Festival in the Peak District and Durham Adventure Festival in the North East of England. Hannah wasn’t always aware of the impact that telling her story would have on the world, ‘I had low moments where I’d wonder what the hell I was doing.’ She admits ‘Who in their right mind would be interested in watching me dunk in cold water?’ Her story however, has reached as far afield as America, gaining her a Peoples Choice Award at 5Point Film Festival. And it’s all down to one sport, a challenge which soon became an addiction – Wild Swimming. 

After reaching what Hannah describes as a ‘painful period in my life’, due to suffering a miscarriage, the weeks that followed were both emotionally and physically painful. Declaring that she wasn’t really ‘friends’ with her body – ‘as I say in the film, I wish we didn’t hang out so much’ – and facing facts that the slender legs of her youth had now been surrounded by ‘big white thighs’, Hannah set out on a challenge to swim in open water once a month for a year, hoping that ‘a series of small monthly goals (dunking in cold water) could lead to a bigger change overall.’ 

Turning to wild swimming because of its ‘non-commercial and authentic appeal’, was also a way to appreciate the countryside, all whilst having the benefit of being ‘a relatively simple sport, with limited potential for excuses.’ At the time that’s exactly what Hannah needed – a reason to get out of the house. ‘You don’t need a lot of gear,’ she tells us. ‘A towel and a swimsuit. It doesn’t require a great deal of athletic prowess either.’

The story, which has gained global recognition due to the success of her film – which Hannah revealed was always planned to be a ‘creative endeavour, as well as an encouragement to bring the old Hannah back,’ – has resonated with both men and women. Hannah puts this down to the shared societal pressures oN body image. ’Here I am in a swimsuit, not caring what I look like and seizing the moment. I think people like positive stories like that.’

Stepping foot into the freezing water of a horseshoe lake in Cadir Idris, Wales, on a brisk February morning, Hannah was thankful there was no ice on the water. Padding along the wintery grass with bare legs and feet, she can recall feeling ‘painfully cold,’ which was soon over-ridden by a feeling of euphoria. ‘I’m in the water for 15 seconds, but I whoop and shriek constantly. The whole thing is ridiculous. Looking back I think I was getting a natural high from all the endorphins running around my body.’ Ridiculous or not, this marked the very start of her absolute love for wearing a swimsuit and exploring wild places. Hannah went on to explore destinations across the country – including Calfclose Bay, Barrow Bay and Birks Bridge in the Lake District, and open water across the Yorkshire Dales including Burnsall and Appletreewick, both destinations along the River Wharfe, which for most of its length is the county boundary between North and West Yorkshire. Travelling around, she found, ‘added an element of celebration to the film, with the variety of beautiful locations we have on offer.’ 

For Hannah, wild swimming was about falling in love with her body again. In practice, however, it ended up being a very different story. Creating a film that has received worldwide recognition, developing a platform where both women and men suffering from body-related issues or loss (such as miscarriage) can reach out and talk, as well as celebrating the wild places that are out there for us to explore. But most importantly, connecting with the old Hannah. 

She now proudly admits, ‘it has changed the way my brain now values myself.’ ‘When you get into water, especially cold water, the sense of the present is overwhelming. You are in it. Fully immersed. Senses overwhelmed.’ Hannah enjoyed the scale of swimming in an open lake with a dramatic mountain backdrop. It can make you feel small and while to some that may seem unnerving, for Hannah it was the best part. ‘I think it’s important to experience comfort in feeling small sometimes – in contrast to the way we spend much of our lives trying to command attention on social media. The awareness that comes from tuning into nature and a wild place that’s far bigger, and will be here far longer than us all.’ Hannah found a degree of comfort in knowing that whenever or wherever, ‘I can dip in an open pool somewhere beautiful and the power of water will help me to rebalance my life.’

See the trailer for ‘My Big White Thighs’ as maiamedia.co.uk

WILD SWIMMING IN YORKSHIRE

If the power of water could help you to rebalance your life too, try our top three wild swimming spots in Yorkshire. Just make sure you do what Hannah insists – ‘don’t dilly dally at the edges, just dunk, or you might talk yourself out of it.’

Appletreewick
River Wharfe, Skipton
A pretty rock pool with a small island and bay. Make use of the rope swing, before retiring post-swim to the large shingle beach. 

Gormire Lake 
North York Moors National Park, Thirsk 
A large and warm natural lake, set amongst woodland. Don’t be put off by the leafy litter - once you reach the open water you’ll be met by incredible views. 

Thomason Foss
North York Moors National Park, Whitby
A plunge pool set beneath an impressive waterfall, which is great for jumping. Enjoy the picturesque setting of this wild swim location. 

Published in: June 2018

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