Man of the Moment: Fenwick Ridley
Northumbrian powerhouse Fenwick Ridley has just been selected to represent Team GB in ice swimming
Fenwick understands that he doesn’t look like your average professional athlete – he’s 6ft four and just under 20 stone, rocking broad shoulders and a powerful beard reminiscent of Northumberland’s own Eric Bloodaxe. Fenwick breaks the mould of the typical athletic role model, but he’s an incredibly accomplished sportsman, coach of an open water swimming school called H2O Trails, and a life coach determined to help people heal through the power of open water swimming. Now selected to represent Team GB and recently achieving three gold medals in Scotland’s Winter Swimming Championships in early March, Fenwick radiates positivity as he reflects on a career spent in our local waters.
‘I’ve been swimming for about 23 years now, eventually setting up my own business called H2O Trails, teaching and coaching swimming myself,’ says Fenwick. ‘I’m a big-built guy with a big beard and an unlikely looking athlete – no trim body or anything like that, but I am an athlete, and I love helping people join in with our open water sessions.’
Ice swimming and the less physically intensive ice dipping sessions offered by H2O Trails are an experience Fenwick finds deep enjoyment in, praising their ability to recalibrate the mind and cleanse the spirit.
‘Through ice swimming you’re capable of enjoying nature with an icy kick! That’s what cold water immersion is, it’s the beautiful backdrop of swimming in Northumberland but with the most incredible feeling that cold water gives you,’ Fenwick explains. ‘The ability to habituate and adapt to the cold is something your body is biologically capable of adjusting to – you can become quite resilient. You find great strength in being able to withstand lower temperatures for a longer time. What we can’t habituate to is the sensory side of it, the sharp “Oh my gosh!” feeling in our cold receptors. Things that do change – we get stronger with the cold water shock response and we become cold-hardened. Some people go in and they come out a different person – it’s amazing to watch.’
What makes Fenwick’s discipline so remarkable is the temperature of the water he powers through. Icy and unrelenting, Fenwick competes in endurance ice swimming events such as the Long Distance Ice Swim and Long Distance Butterfly – a challenge he must train for constantly.
‘I’m a long distance ice swimmer, so I train a lot and I get a lot of physical fitness out of it, but that’s only because of the intensity. There’s not exactly a fitness health benefit unless you do it to such an intense standard,’ he continues. ‘What you do get are amazing big bright smiles and beautiful views. You get clarity in a busy mind – it helps me refocus and isolate my brain so that I have a steady thought process in life. The mental switch-off allows me to stop the fuzz. It allows for recalibration – letting me detach from the stressful aspects of life, especially over these last few years. We’ve all realised that we all need a purpose to train for, no one is superhuman. We are all vulnerable to stress. It’s the way that we are designed.’
At first glance ice swimming might seem like an extreme sport, bordering on masochism to those that haven’t taken the plunge themselves. In reality, cold water immersion is described as a healing process by Fenwick, one he wants to share with people struggling with their mental health.
‘The metabolic change we experience when we plunge into cold water is something we can’t find anywhere else. It has huge benefits. Our bodies and minds scream out for this unusual change. It has an incredibly positive effect on both bodies and minds,’ he explains.
'This last year I’ve found it difficult both training for Team GB and taking the time to make steps to better look after myself. I can’t approach the water with a busy brain, feeling sick and anxious. I have to approach the water with a clear head, confident, and knowing I’m on top form,’ he elaborates. ‘My mental state has been more of a seesaw, and that’s normal! It’s hard for a lot of people, but we need to communicate and help each other get through it. There used to be this idea that men are supposed to be tough, to be able to take on immense pressure and just deal with it,’ says Fenwick. ‘But men need to know that it’s okay to open up to a neighbour or friend. Joining a group of people with similar circumstances or interests is an amazing help, there’s so much support out there.’
Fenwick is a testament to what it really means to have inner strength. Through ice swimming he has trained himself to become both physically and mentally resilient, allowing himself to be emotionally vulnerable and open up about mental health in a way he hopes inspires more men to find solace in the open waters of Northumberland.
‘I want to take more people and introduce them to the outdoors, and to a lovely community that has no stigma or prejudice. I’ve seen more men join us in the last year and a half than I ever have,’ he says. ‘After a swim, some people say to me, “That’s just done the world of good to me, mate” and that helps me so much. I can’t describe how good it makes me feel.
‘I’m not far off breaking a world record in long distance ice swimming, that’s the next big goal, Long Distance Butterfly as well as achieving a mile in Ice Butterfly,’ he adds. ‘The most important thing for me is to just keep at it and smash these goals. I had a dream of being able to represent Britain, but the fact that I’ve managed to achieve my goal thanks to the focus I’ve put into swimming is amazing. If you believe it, it can happen.’