Jo Jones fell in love with open water swimming when she was a child. By the age of 16, she’d set her mind on swimming the English Channel. At the age of 24, she achieved her goal, ticking the epic endurance feat off her bucket list.
So what does it feel like to achieve your lifelong dream in your early twenties? Joanne, now 27, shares her journey to Channel swimmer with me below and also chats about her recent and successful foray into ice swimming, which saw her take gold in the International Ice Swimming Association 500m freestyle earlier this year.
Tell me about your background – when did you start swimming?
I’ve swum for what feels like my whole life. My dad swims with a club and my uncle swims a lot, so it’s just something I’ve done. I’ve got vague memories of swimming lessons which led me to try out for a swimming club when I was seven. Club swimming was all I did, and it took me a while to realise that you can swim for fun as well as enjoying training sessions. I’d feel lost and uncomfortable if I didn’t have a session goal, went to the pool with friends or, for any reason, didn’t have a cap and goggles.
It’s been in the last couple of years since my Channel solo that I’ve loved exploring swimming for the sake of swimming and all the experiences that come with it.
How old were you when you first experienced open water swimming?
My first memory of open water swimming was when I was 11. Dad took me to Eastbourne to practice for an event he had entered. I remember him saying something like, ‘You can come in and swim with me and swim to the buoy and back, or you can sit here and watch – though you might get bored’. It was a no brainer, so I went for a swim.
I loved the vastness of the open water – no walls, no ceiling, and no lane ropes. I felt small, not in an intimidating way, but a comforting one. The next year, when I was old enough, I swam in the event and found that I was a better swimmer out of the pool comparatively than in it, and more importantly, I enjoyed it more.
What led you to decide to swim the English Channel?
I have a vague memory of hearing about David Walliams swimming the Channel in 2005 – I thought it was incredible. Then a few years later, in 2009, my uncle swam the Channel. A year after that, when I was 16, I took part in an English Channel relay that my Dad and his masters teammates swam. It strengthened our family relationship a lot; seeing my uncle and aunt in Dover most weekends, as well as time spent with my dad driving to the coast and back.
Also, it hugely helped my self-confidence. As a fairly insecure 16-year-old, I was astonished that there were all shapes, sizes and speeds celebrated and successful in Channel swimming. I wasn’t comfortable with my body and didn’t have much faith in my abilities, and it started me on a journey of being kinder to myself, realising that strength, skill and beauty come in a variety of ways.
During the relay, I didn’t like that I was on the boat for more time than I was swimming, but I loved the experience of swimming from one country to another. Flippantly, I remember saying I’d do a solo [crossing] and with the now cringe-worthy ‘wisdom’ of a 16-year-old, I said that I’d do it before I was 25 and I got ‘old’. Now aged 27, I want to laugh at 16-year-old me for thinking that.
When did it become a serious goal?
Over the next nine years, I kept bumping into people who were planning on swimming the Channel or had done so, and so it became my ‘must-do’ swim. I didn’t realise how much you need to give up for serious training. At uni I thought I’d just fit it in and become ready, but after years of training just not happening, I realised I had to be a lot more intentional so I booked a slot two years away and then other aspects of life took a bit of a backseat so I could train as much as I needed to.
What was your experience of swimming the Channel like?
The Channel was remarkable. I’d trained incredibly hard and with the resilience that you have in your early twenties to push yourself in ways which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend today. I trained with a cold and a headache, I trained after a night of no sleep, I trained in every condition imaginable and wore extra layers to prevent sunburn and increase drag. I wanted to replicate every possible scenario to give myself the best chance of getting across.
The day of the Channel swim I had exceptional weather, and apart from nearly swimming into the boat before I’d got to the harbour wall – which would have earned me a concussion and the end of the swim – it was a textbook swim. I recall vividly wondering when I’d reach halfway when I saw the Varne Ridge buoy pass less than 5m from me – signalling halfway. It exceeded all my expectations and largely I couldn’t have wished for a better swim. I know several swimmers in my year whose weather was wildly different, so I am incredibly grateful for the day at sea I had. A small goggle mishap, a short-lived mid-Channel meltdown and a really seasick husband are nothing to complain about.
Sentimentally, the crew I had meant a lot too. I had my dad, who had always supported me in swimming, my new husband (having got married in the February beforehand), and one of my squad coaches at the club I trained at in my teens. My uncle, who had inspired the whole swim journey, was the boat co-pilot and so he literally guided my swim across the channel.
You were only 24 when you swam the Channel. What is it like to achieve your life goal so young?
Achieving something I had set my mind on so young massively helped my confidence. I remember the day after, on the drive home, walking taller on a pit stop at a service station. It stands as a marker in my life that I can do what I put my mind to. I know what it takes to accomplish something massive – patience, breaking down impossible goals into smaller chunks, being ready for anything, but also having good fortune helps too. That feeling hasn’t left me – even if the whole Channel swim feels a bit like a dream sometimes.
Achieving something I’d set my mind on so young also brings freedom. I remember saying to friends that once I’d done the Channel I never have to swim any other big swims again. I’m a lot less black and white in my thinking than I was as a teenager now and I’m realising that we can have more than one goal, and one contributes to the next. The experience of training for the Channel, not to mention working with a swimming magazine (Jo works for Outdoor Swimmer), has opened a whole world of ultra-marathon swims that I didn’t know existed.
What is it about open water swimming that you love?
I love the vastness of the water and the world. It helps align my perspective to things which are bigger than I am. It connects me to nature and gives me time away from the bustle and busyness of life to let my mind wander.
You won the International Ice Swimming Association (IISA) 500m freestyle this year. How did you get into ice swimming?
It was a new challenge. I’d trained to swim long distances and trained to swim as fast as I could, so I wanted to see what it was like to train to be comfortable in cold temperatures, pushing my body in another direction to see how it would adapt.
I’m still getting my head around winning the 500m and that I was second fastest GB female for the 1km. Growing up, in [my] swimming club I was a very competent lane 2 lead – good, but not quite good enough to be picked for the big galas, qualify for county champs or win medals, and so I’ve always been content swimming the best I can regardless of the result and the enjoyment of it drives me more than anything – and so at age 27, to have won something is weird.
How do you prepare for an ice swimming competition – what did your training involve?
My training was twofold – I sought out cold water as often as I could, with a draft Ice Mile training plan courtesy of the Jedi Polar Bear Challenge, but I also spent a lot of time working on the technical bits with speed work and thinking about touch turns and technique in the pool with input from video analysis sessions and my club coach, which helped me transition somewhat from a ‘plod’ swimmer who can sustain a good speed for a long time to being able to up the speed when necessary.
Is competitive ice swimming something you plan to pursue?
I don’t know how you get ‘into’ ice swimming properly. I’m keeping an eye online for any announcements and if the opportunity came up to swim at the world championships next year, I’d love to, but on the other hand, I was surprised how much I enjoyed racing in cold water so I will definitely do as many ice competitions as I can for years to come in whatever form they take.
Prior to lockdown what did your typical weekly swimming routine and training look like?
I was taking part in a ‘Million Metre Challenge’ (aiming for 500km, not 1 million metres) which Outdoor Swimmer magazine set up as a Facebook group and I was, as a result, in the best shape I’ve been in years.
Swim-wise I try to do to three sessions on a Monday evening, Thursday morning and Friday morning with my swim club, and then a weekend morning in the open water with intermittent runs/gym sessions and trips to unheated lidos if I was in London for work. However, routine and regular training is my downfall so I often make it up as I go along.
How did you find the period without swimming during lockdown?
I’ve found a lack of training really hard. I like being fit and healthy, but I struggle with land workouts and running as I don’t like feeling sweaty, nor like I’m not very good at it which is disheartening. When lockdown started I was very enthusiastic and ran a lot, mixing in some Joe Wicks workouts, but in subsequent weeks that waned. I had a bit of a mental wobble on all the uncertainty of this year, so stopped putting pressure on myself to keep fit if I wasn’t enjoying it, and have been working through that I won’t be as fit as I’d usually be.
This was the longest I’d ever not swum, and I really missed the water – so it’s lovely to be back and slowly, slowly starting to build fitness again.
What are your favourite items of kit for outdoor swimming?
I love my Deakin and Blue swimsuit, I find them so well made and comfortable, and durable for swims which is nice. I got a sample sale swimsuit so it’s an unusual design, which makes me love it all the more.
Swans/Huub prescription goggles which I use for pool and open water respectively. To be able to see when I’m swimming is a huge novelty still, rather than squint and work out which blur is which is a dream.
While I don’t wear them often anymore, I do love my Zoggs Predator Flex goggles. I wore these across the Channel and they didn’t leak once, so if they ever manage to put prescription lenses in those gaskets I’d pay a LOT of money for a pair of them.
Platysens Marlin (waterproof GPS swim meter) – I was a bit apprehensive about this but I love training with it as it gives me my swim updates in my ear with a GPS tracker, and as it’s on my goggle strap the GPS is very accurate.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
No. I work with Outdoor Swimmer Magazine in advertising sales, and as one of the swimmers on the team, I review some of the kit which is sent in sometimes.
Do you have other big outdoor swimming goals or dreams?
Whenever I think of what I’d like to swim next, I think of the quote ‘I’ve not been everywhere but it’s on my list.’ I’m intrigued by an Ice Mile, as I’ve loved the journey into ice swimming, and in wild swimming, I’ve never swum in a waterfall and really want to, so I’m imagining trips to the Lakes or Devon when travel is viable to go waterfall hunting. And I would LOVE to swim somewhere abroad where they have turtles as they are my favourite animal.
In terms of big swims, I try and whittle down what could be an endless list by making sure they have an emotional or spiritual tie to them, especially as the level of training ultra-marathon swims take knocks the balance of swimming and family life so that’s my way of trying to strike a balance. I’m considering the Bristol Channel, as my husband is from Bristol, and it seems to be a lesser-known swim which I also like the idea of. Then the Sea of Galilee is also firmly on my list. My husband and I want to visit Israel, so it would be a nice holiday, and a spiritual pilgrimage of sorts as a Christian too.
To be honest, I’m up for swimming anything, the world is full of water and wonderful places, and I do like adventure. Having gotten into ultra-marathon swimming quite young, I’m fortunate that, God willing, I’ll have a lot of years to swim in as many places as possible.
You can follow Jo’s training via her social media: www.instagram.com/jo_swimsandthings.