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A view Ballycuggeran beach, Two Mile Gate, at Killaloe. Photograph by John Kelly.

Travel restrictions led to open water swimming boom in Killaloe

OPEN water swimming is becoming a very popular pursuit in Two Mile Gate, Killaloe, following travel restrictions imposed to curb Covid-19 over the past year.

This is graphically illustrated by the huge interest and participation in swimming lessons, which started on Wednesday evenings in Ballycuggeran in July.

With the demand for swimming lessons already outstripping supply, Swim Ireland are considering extending them for four weeks in September, subject to weather conditions.

Swim Ireland coach, Donnacha McGeever, Ballina, believes travel restrictions imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic encouraged people to avail of more recreational activities on their doorstep.

“I wasn’t doing any open water swimming for the last few years. When Covid-19 came, it was the only social and activity outlet I had to get out into the real world during the winter.

“There has been a massive uptake in swimming during the pandemic. I think Covid-19 kept us local and taught us we can enjoy the open water with a wet suit, and a flask of tea afterwards.” – Donnacha McGeever

Donnacha (26) was a competitive swimmer until the age of 17, and has been teaching pool swimming more than seven years in the Lakeside Hotel, Ballina, Killaloe.

“I nearly learn more teaching swimming than practising it. I really enjoy it. When you can see a person developing a skill in front of you, someone who hasn’t put their face in the water and are now swimming 350 metres, there is great job satisfaction.

“I leave every swimming lesson happier than when I went into it.”

He hopes that the number of open water swimming sessions will increase and could start even earlier next year.

Swim Ireland coach, Wendy Szaranek is a physiotherapist who has been providing swimming lessons on and off for about 20 years.

While it is not her day job, she loves teaching people how to swim during the evenings and at weekends.

“I swam all my life. I was a competitive swimmer when I was younger. I still do some masters swimming in competitions. I am a member of Boru Tri Club for the swimming and running.

“The swim groups were sold out every week. The enthusiasm for the swimming programmes in Killaloe has been second to none. The swimmers are so enthusiastic.” – Wendy Szaranek

“We wanted to help the first group improve their technique, and endurance, while at the same time having a bit of fun.

“Some swimmers would not put their face in the water for the first few weeks. Some swimmers swam with their face up at the start. Now we have got them to do the front crawl with proper breathing to the side. This enables them to complete a greater distance in open water.

“There is a big difference between swimming in a pool and the open water. You have all the variables in open water – the weather, elements and the water. We had to teach them how to breathe in choppy and flat water.”

She said there are groups of men and women who meet up during the week and practice what they learned outside of the swimming lessons.

Originally from Scotland, she and her husband, John, who is the head coach for Swim Ireland at the National Centre in the University of Limerick are literally immersed in teaching people how to swim.

Mr Szaranek is one of the coaches who helped Finn McGeever, Ballina, knock four seconds off his time in the 200 metre freestyle, which helped him to win a place in the Ireland four by 200 metre relay team at the Tokyo Olympics.

For the last three years, the couple have been living in Cullenagh, Ballina, which they really enjoy.

Deirdre Carney and Rosie Foley have also provided some swimming lessons to groups.

The increased use of Two Mile Gate for swimming, diving in the new waterpark, paddle boarding, kayaking and picnics has meant that coaches struggled to find a parking space on the road some evenings.

Twelve swimmers joined two groups – one for inexperienced and advanced. The first group was called Beach to Buoy, and the participants had to be able to swim a few lengths in a standard 25-metre pool.

The coaches wanted to help these swimmers to improve technique, confidence, stamina, and have fun in the water.

Improving open water skills is the main focus of the second session.

Donnacha McGeever stressed building confidence is a very important factor for swimmers. He has noticed a big improvement in swimmers every week.

He said it takes tenacity for beginners to attend training every week regardless of weather conditions.

“It is like night and day from the start to the end of the class. A class might start at 7 and finish at 7.45pm. There is a significant difference after 45 minutes.

“Theory and tips are very important, but going away and doing your own practice and embedding those new habits is game changing.

“There was a few swimmers who might only have swam a few strokes face down for the front crawl. Now they are swimming one kilometre face down front crawl. All of a sudden a marathon, long cycle or triathlon is not out of bounds. It opens the door physically for people who realise they can do more exercise than they thought.”

Five weeks into the eight-week programme, 12 swimmers managed to complete the beach to buoy by completing a one-kilometre stretch of the water.

Donnacha McGeever watching brother Finn’s progress in the Olympics this summer with his mother Roisin and father Charlie. Photograph by Pam Teese

Meanwhile, his mother Roisín has completed Level One of the Swim Ireland training course.

While she was teaching in Ballina National School, she used to take children swimming to the Lakeside Hotel about once a week pre Covid-19, where they were taught by her son, Donnacha.

Having retired from teaching, she hopes to complete the necessary training to teach children with ASD or additional needs to swim.

“Team sports doesn’t work very well for children with ASD. Swimming is more an individual sport.

Once she has completed Level Two of the Swim Ireland course within the next 12 months, she can run her own swimming classes.

“I would like to develop visual materials that I could use in the pool with the swimmers.” – Roisín McGeever

Swim Ireland coaches, Wendy Szaranek and Deirdre Carney also put swimmers through their paces throughout June and July at Ballina Outdoor Heated Swimming Pool for the swim for a one-mile event.

Twenty swimmers attended these swimming lessons on Tuesday and Thursday nights with some crossover for the eight-week programme. Just under 40 participants completed the one-mile swim at Ballina pool on Saturday, August 7.

by Dan Danaher

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