Rory Southworth – Penguin Ninja Swim Challenge

Man in Speedo swimwear wades into the water in Speedo gear

Bring on the summer season of run swims and skins swimming!

Penguin Ninja challenge swimmer & all-round winter adventurer Rory Southworth loved his biggest swim challenge yet- but like us all, he can’t wait for summer swims….

My head is screaming, the water’s icy feel lapping around my face. It’s now almost impossible to find water above 7 degrees in the Lake District as I start to swim my final Penguin Ninja set swim of 1500m at sub 7°c.

I start out front crawl, getting blinded by the sun every time I bring my head out to breathe. The night time distance swims have been feeling tougher at every degree it gets closer. So, I’ve opted for a daytime weekend swim to top up my monthly distance.

Man swims in lake in Speedo swimwear

Front crawl moves to breaststroke and onto head out breaststroke as I get more and more inpatient with the discomfort. Some days I feel I’m made for it, others you work for every meter. Today, the cold gusty winds making it the latter. Taking in my surroundings of Rydal Water in the Lake District, I’m surrounded by hills and mountains. But none of that is making the ice cream head feeling and head wind feel worth it.

The Penguin Ninja challenge pushes me to swim on days I don’t feel like it. To do further distances when I feel like being lazy. But most of all. It keeps me swimming consistently throughout the winter. Free days are spent hiking up hills to find cold Tarns, driving to big Lakes to get some serious distance in and plotting potential routes. A challenge like this is what I find I need to stay motivated.

Back to the water and whilst I might have started out swimming next to a small group of others, they have now turned back, keeping their swim short. However, I’m not even a quarter into my swim. Needing to cover the rest of my months distance still after leaving myself 1700m to swim with two days left in the month. I start to round my first turning point in the Lake, mentally mapping where I am to the plotted route on my phone that only this morning I tried to memorise. As I turn the sun that was shining so brightly on my back just a moment ago, now full on blinds my sight, squinting I can now see the gust of winds that I knew I would have to deal with at some point, now coming into play as small but aggressive waves.

Taking a slap to the face and trying my best to time my breaths as to take in air, not water, I curse the wind and the difficulties it causes in outdoor swimming.

Man swims in lake in Speedo swimwear at night

Most months I found swimming at least a total of 3000m easily done. Swimming the set swims plus a few training swims would take my monthly total to 8-10km each month. But with a few back-to-back storms and some high winds, I’d not managed to swim as much or as far and now I was on the back foot. I’ve found in past swim projects that the weather always has the control really. It doesn’t take much wind to turn a swim into something feeling much more like survival training, with surface water spraying at you in every direction and waves slapping you in the face. Scuppering your breathing pattern and inevitably causing you to drink water from the Lake!

This project has taught me so much about winter distance swimming, about what I am able to do and how much more mentally challenging winter distance swimming is. Going into this project I had swam 1km a few times in the winter, but always in the daylight. Swimming 1-2km at night throughout this winter has been both challenging and satisfying. Being confident with my ability now in low temperatures and having my night swim processes down I feel I will be going into the next season ready to push the next challenge.

But I can’t help also look forward to the longer days, lighter evenings and some warmer temps. Hiking through snow and breaking ice to swim is novel. But requires a lot of resilience and I wouldn’t want to do it year-round. The winter swim season is always a highlight, but what makes it so fun is that it’s short-lived and you have to make the most of the cold moments before they are gone.

Bring on the summer season of run swims and skins swimming!



Writer and expert