Swim Lake Geneva: The challenge

Part one

Sophie Expert British Ski InstructorIt’s been three weeks since the swim, and I know that neither Maddie nor I have felt the urge to get in water any deeper than the bath since.

But it’s a part of our lives that already seems a little dream-like and unreal.

Did we do it? Did we really do it? And, er, why did we do it?

So to tell the story, to look at how we managed to get through it all and to try to understand why I put myself through this, I wanted to to write it all down.

Now, it’s a story I’m telling – and if you know me, you’ll know I don’t do short stories.

But bear with me. It’s worth it. And I’ve broken it into three parts. So this is about challenges. Part two is about training and preparation (good and bad). The last part is how you turn the best-of-intentions into success: The Swim.

The idea

Most challenges seem to start with half an idea and become an obsession. A little germ of an idea forms and before you know it, it’s taken over…

Swimming Lake Geneva was one of those things that started with an off-hand comment.


My dad said, “you should swim Lake Geneva next,” when we he came to visit me in Verbier.

We were just chatting after a long day’s skiing, and swimming the English Channel came up in conversation – I swam it a few years earlier. It was just a chance remark.

But the lake caught my imagination. I had originally got into open water swimming at university and decided to swim the channel in my final year. A care-free student who could train as much as she wanted. Life has certainly changed – a lot.

The thought germinated in my brain, and it made me start thinking about the massive, deep, silent body of water that is just down the road from our home here in Verbier. The epic, silent lake we fly over when we come in to land at Geneva Airport.

When I see that lake and the mountains and the snow, I always think, “we’re nearly home”.

Lake Geneva existed for a couple of years as a funny half-idea – a notion I could swim past all these towns I know so well, swim through a landscape I’d seen so many times from the autoroute that runs alongside it.

Setting a new challenge

Part of me is obsessed with challenges. I need something to focus on. A target. ‘Why do you want to do that?’ people would ask me. Well, why not?

For example I’m a very proud mother of two adorable girls (*the term adorable is used with a series of caveats and can be withdrawn at any time I choose, particularly when tantrums are involved).

And after each of them came into the world I set a challenge. To prove to myself that I was still me as well as all the new things I have become.

sophie-after-lausanne-10kAfter Lexi was born I decided to do the Lake Annecy half marathon. And I did it. I discovered that the combination of an extremely snowy winter and a tiny baby does not create a perfect harmony in which to don a pair of trainers and run. But I gritted my teeth, ran every step, all-be-it slowly and made it to the finish line. Little 4 month old Lexi was there all bundled up and bemused and made it worth while.

Then when Abi was born I set another target – the Lausanne 10k. Shorter distance, shorter window to prepare, (she was only 6 weeks old at the time of the race). But I was fit and determined. An Autumn baby who enjoyed (slept through) jaunts in the pram meant that I was much better prepared. Still – it seems a second baby hadn’t made the logistics of training a lot easier… But I was greeted on the finish line by two small people and my incredibly tolerant husband, Guy.

Before the girls it was the ski training – after leaving university I was focussed on skiing as much as I could, going as far as I could. I got the ISIA badge when I was 23 – getting to travel all over the world into the bargain. It took a lot of hard work, and a lot of determination – as we all know changing and improving your skiing is never easy. Change and development are hard-earned.

Before the Level 3 had been the channel. Looking back I can’t think how I got up every morning to swim a billion laps, or how I spent weekends doing lengths of Dover harbour. But I had that drive.

Naturally, Lake Geneva was a progression in my goal setting. But it was also an insane idea. Lake Geneva might be shaped like a banana but at it’s shortest distance its 69.8km long. The English Channel 36km. That’s quite a bit further…

But the little voice in my head would always point out fresh water swimming is easier than salt water, it’s warmer, prettier and a lake doesn’t have either a tide or shipping lanes that are the busiest in the world.

There are swings and roundabouts.

Sharing the challenge

One day a post on social media appeared. I had more than a few people tag me in said post. I read along the lines of, ‘I know this is crazy but does anyone want to be crazy like me and swim Lake Geneva with me next summer?’ I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.

training-swimThat friend was Maddie. A brilliant human being, a great friend and one of those people who you know has deep reserves of drive that are hidden by a constant lightheartedness that fools most people. But make no mistake, Miss Reynolds has the kind of resolve that can conquer anything. Plus our kids love her so our bond was many-layered.

Swimming the channel had been tough – solitary and lonely. My I had some amazing support but I was doing it alone. But in skiing – another potentially solitary support – the training and practice were always as part of a team. Fellow instructors training together when we could and helping each other. Suddenly swimming with Maddie started feeling more like that ‘buzz’ of being in a team and less lonely. You’re in it together so you question yourself less. It also feels less of a vanity exercise.

The partnership made the prospect of trying to swim Lake Geneva a much more plausible one. Without Maddy it might well have stayed a dream. But somehow having someone to train with, confide in, someone I had to support and help as well. Somehow all that made the journey less daunting.

So the discussion became an idea, the idea became a plan, the plan became a possibility. The possibility eventually decided to stop messing about, it said “book it” and it set a date.

Suddenly it was a thing. A real, terrifying, exciting ‘thing’.

Our date was the week of October 3rd to the 9th. As I sit here at the keyboard it hasn’t escaped me that means it was supposed to be this week. I should be in the water right now…

But back then we even decided on a hashtag: #swimlakegeneva. OK, it wasn’t a priority, but even that little social media tag galvanised us into making it happen.

Summer would warm the waters, and if the first snow held off that deep body of water could retain heat through until October and we could swim.

But if the snow fell early, if the summer was cool, we were going to have issues – like the English Channel Swimming Association, the Lake Geneva Swimming Association has rules including the fact that you have to swim in a normal swim suit (not a wetsuit or anything insulated).

It’s a slightly sadistic characteristic of both swims and one that had pretty whopping consequences.



Swim Lake Geneva: The challenge