The Great East Swim changed my life
November 4, 2021
Chris Bally and his 3 girls

Chris Bally talks about his passion for open-water swimming

The Great East Swim

Chris’s journey with open-water swimming began in 2014 when he was coming out of a meeting at Suffolk County Council, just after the Great East Swim (GES) had been launched.

There was a conversation between the leadership team which resulted in a gauntlet being thrown down for someone to participate and he accepted.

“So my motivation to start open water swimming really came from someone giving me a friendly poke in the tummy, as I was overweight and not very fit at all, suggesting that I should give it a try – and just like that I thought, actually, yes I will.”

When I was a lot younger, I was a mad-keen footballer, hockey player and cricketer until my late 20’s and then as is a common trait, I had a family and the team sports stopped as did most forms of exercise, despite various attempts to try different things, none of which worked for me, so I’d been physically inactive for the best part of fifteen years.

So the challenge came at the right time but I’d never really done any swimming at all, in fact I couldn’t do two lengths of front crawl even.

After signing up for the GES that year, I started doing my own pool training for a while and had some lessons before I found out about a group called ‘Swimscapes’ at Felixstowe, who do outdoor swimming in the sea. So I started going swimming with them and very quickly got the bug for it because it was exhilarating and I loved how it made me feel afterwards – more energised and healthier.

I then took part in the GES taster session and had my first experience with a wetsuit, which I couldn’t get used to at first, but I bought my swimming wetsuit anyway and it arrived two days before the event.

The GES event itself was fantastic and I loved every part of it!

The feeling of achievement is so good for your self esteem but also the camaraderie is fantastic and this is what I’ve found so much with open-water swimming – it’s the belonging, the advice and support from other swimmers, it’s good for your soul.

Following my first GES event, I’ve now taken part every year since 2014, trying to improve my time each year and my last event, I completed it in about 30 minutes, so was very happy with that.

chris swimming the channel with large boat infront
Chris Bally at GES
Chris Bally at Great East Swim

The Channel Relay Swim

Chris also took part in Swim Serpentine in London, the 10k Jubilee River Swim in the Thames and swim leg of the Aldeburgh triathlon as well as carrying on with his weekly swims at Felixstowe with the Swimscapes, because he had found an outdoor activity that he really loved and having a goal, such as an event, to aim for was a great motivation for him.

It was then in the Summer of 2019 that Chris was sitting outside the Fludgers pub in Felixstowe, with some of his Swimscapes friends, when a conversation started about The Channel Relay Swim, and before he knew it, he agreed to do it with four other friends.

There is a 2-year lead-in time, so the Team, Felixstowe Channel 21, booked a slot and started training, taking part in other events along the way.

In 2020 they completed the necessary qualifying Channel Relay Swim where you have to swim for two hours below 16 degrees with an observer. They had to time that just right, watching the temperatures in October and Chris recalls ‘it was very rough and very cold’.

“The pandemic did cause us some issues in terms of keeping up with all the training as people stopped swimming during the lockdowns. However, the summer relaxation meant that we could still get out in small groups so it wasn’t too bad.

We started our Channel Relay Swim at 23:15 on 24 June and swam through the night, finishing 16 hours later at 14:15 on 25 June. Each one of our 5-person team (2 men and 3 women) swam for an hour then swapped and I was swimmer number three, so we all did about 3-hours in total. But we all stayed awake throughout the swim, helping, supporting and encouraging each other.

It was very exciting actually, jumping into the sea in the dark and once I was swimming it was lovely even though you can’t see anything apart from the jelly fish, but they didn’t cause any issues. At one point I was behind a very large boat, which was a little surreal, but it’s very safe and very well managed, with an observer the entire time, so we never felt unsafe at any point in the crossing.

The feeling at the finish of the relay swim was simply amazing, pure elation!
And the camaraderie within the team was fantastic, a bond that will be there forever. When we started the process of taking part – ‘survival’ was the main aim, but in reality we achieved so much more than that including raising £10,000 for the East Anglian Air Ambulance and Suffolk MIND.

Outdoor swimming is now part of my DNA and physically it has changed my shape and improved my health significantly. I have way more energy, I feel a lot stronger, more confident and I’ve lost 2-stone in about 12 months just from exercise and good eating habits. Plus I don’t worry about having a ‘cheat-day’.

However, I’m now a huge advocate of the mental health benefits that exercise brings, especially outdoors exercise and I’ve seen first-hand how this bonds all of us. We have such a diverse range of people in our Felixstowe Swimscapes group, different backgrounds, different beliefs and different jobs, but we all have this commonality which we love and the support we give each other is monumental.

I will definitely continue to take part in events, such as the Great East Swim and I’m really happy that it has rubbed off on my family, with my three daughters taking part in the GES outreach programme and then the GES event and one of them still swims regularly in Felixstowe. It’s given them all a love of the water and it’s motivated them to get fitter.

My advice to anyone thinking about taking up open water swimming is two-fold.

1. Set yourself a goal such as training for an event, being part of a club or even joining a community on Strava.
2. And never feel embarrassed about being new to something.

The first time I turned up at Swimscapes, I said “I’m new here” and the response was “Brilliant, just stick with us and see how you go”

It’s natural to feel the odd one out but you’ll soon realise that people want to help you and before you know it – you’ll be the one helping others.

(Images courtesy of Chris Bally – top image is Chris with his 3 children who also took part in the Great East Swim and the MAC Outreach programme)

Chris Bally and the channel swim team
Route map of the channel swim

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