“It’s when I feel most like me” – the woman who swims through ice

Record-breaking Cath Pendleton describes dodging killer whales in the Antarctic and how she’s gearing up to swim in the Arctic.

While the rest of us are dreaming of sunshine and hot weather, Cath Pendleton is preparing for warmer weather by spending more time sitting in her chest freezer.

The world record-breaker from South Wales is finding new ways to stay cold. Cath made the record books in 2020 by swimming a mile in the Antarctic and this summer she’s heading off to the other end of the globe – to swim an ice mile in the Arctic.

woman with mermaid tail in the seaCredit: Emma Harper
Cath Pendleton is known as the Merthyr Mermaid

“I really don’t enjoy sitting in a freezer full of ice,” Pendleton admits. “And people do think I’m bonkers. But to swim in water that cold you must acclimatise to it, otherwise your body goes into shock. As summer comes and the temperatures rise, sitting in a freezer is the only way I can replicate the conditions.”

She jokes that she may not look like a stereotypical athlete, but she made history in February 2020 when she swam an ice mile inside the Antarctic circle.

“I was more nervous of the killer whales and leopard seals than actually swimming in the Antarctic,” she says. “When you are in the water wearing only a swimming costume, you look just like a seal – and that’s what they eat!”

Pendleton, who’s a mum-of-two from Merthyr Tydfil, used to enjoy taking part in triathlons. Then in 2014 she took part in her first outdoor swim as part of a competition.

“I found out afterwards that loads of swimmers had dropped out because the water was so cold,” she says. “But I loved it and was absolutely buzzing.”

woman swimmer in front of a lakeCredit: Fatma Richards
Pendleton swims in mountain lakes throughout the year.

Following a back injury, however, she was left wondering what to do next. “Then I saw a photo in a magazine of some swimmers standing by Lake Windermere in nothing but swimming costumes. I thought that was bonkers. It was for an event run by Chillswim, which organises outdoor and wild swimming activities, and I decided to give it a go.”

In September 2015, she started swimming with friends to try and get used to the cold water.

“I grew up in the Brecon Beacons and we all used to swim in the local river,” she says. “The water was always freezing, but I loved it then and it may be that my body remembered the cold.

“Me and my friend got in our local river in our swimming costumes and swam around for about 10 minutes. We couldn’t warm up afterwards – we were freezing. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone starts cold-water swimming like that.”

Ice mile challenge

Despite the shaky start, Pendleton had caught the cold-water swimming bug. Then she was told by a swim buddy about the ice mile and was determined to swim one, despite the strict rules – the water temperature must be below 5°C (41°F) and you can only wear a swimsuit, hat and goggles.

“People say it takes two or three years to prepare to do an ice mile, but I did one after a few months. Ice swimming is very difficult, and I was training four or five times a week, but I think that some people tolerate the cold better than others.” She smiles.

Woman in a changing robe by a lakeCredit: Cath Pendleton
Pendleton says swimming in cold water makes her feel alive and happy

Swimming the Channel

After swimming her first ice mile, she started thinking about her next challenge.

“It was April and I’d recently met a woman who had swum the Channel, so I thought, you know what, I’ll swim the Channel too,” she laughs. “I looked up how to do it online, and booked a date when the kids would be at school. It was in two years’ time, and I thought, Oh that’s ages from now.”

The next morning reality struck, but she had already paid to enter – registration is more than £300 and a boat pilot costs about £3,000 – so she was committed.

“I began my training programme and after my first swim I got a shoulder injury and a stomach bug from the dirty water. It wasn’t a great start.”

She travelled to Poland for a 1.5km race in a water temperature of 1.5°C (35°F). That’s where she met Irish open water swimmer Ger Kennedy, who was leading the Antarctica 2020 International Swim expedition.

“I’d never thought about anything like that before, but I watched a video of an American open water swimmer in Antarctica,’ she says. “It was so flat and calm and then I saw penguins jumping into the water behind her. I had to go.”

A woman in a van decorated with graphics about how she is swimming the ChannelCredit: Cath Pendleton
Pendleton saw her Channel swim as a stepping stone to the Antarctic

Pendleton knew the training would be the easiest part for her – the difficult bit would be finding the money to pay for it.

Luckily a friend put her in touch with a company, Source Insurance, who agreed to sponsor her Channel swim – and if that worked out, they would look at sponsoring the Antarctic trip as well.

“I had no money, so this made a huge difference,” she says. “It paid for me to go to a training camp and I could finally start to believe that Antarctica could happen.

“But first I had to do the Channel swim. I’d been advised to not look where you are going, don’t ask questions, don’t talk to anyone in the support boat, just swim.

“So that’s what I did for nearly 17 hours. It was so boring – I was swimming along and thinking I’ve run out of songs, I’m not allowed to speak to any one and I want to stop.

“But I’d been training for two years, and I knew if I did this, I could get sponsorship to go to the Antarctic. So it was like, shut it Cath and keep swimming. I did it, it was really tough, and would I ever do it again? No.”

A woman sat in a freezer full of ice waterCredit: James Pontin (BBC)
Pendleton’s Antarctic training included sitting in a freezer full of ice water

Once she’d completed her Channel swim, her sponsor agreed to continue its support to help her go to the Antarctic. She also managed to secure sponsorship from Young’s Foods, which meant she could make her dream come true.

To prepare for her challenge she kept swimming in cold water, including representing Great Britain at the 2019 World Ice Swimming Championships in Murmansk, Russia, where she won bronze in her age category.

But she also needed to work on acclimatising to the cold.

“I asked Ger, who organised the trip, how I could work on getting used to the ice cold,” she says. “He said get a freezer, like Australian swimmers do, and spend time in that. He was probably being tongue-in-cheek, but I bought a chest freezer from Facebook marketplace, put it in the back garden, filled it with ice-cold water and sat in it every day. I didn’t enjoy it, I have to be honest.”

A woman standing in her swimming costume surrounded by iceburgs.Credit: James Pontin (BBC)
Pendleton’s dream came true when she swam in the Antarctic

Swimming in the Antarctic

In February 2020, Pendleton flew to South America and then boarded the boat for the Antarctic. Word had spread about what she was doing, and BBC Wales joined her to film a documentary.

“There was a lot of pressure, but I knew I could do the swim – what I was worried about was the wildlife. I knew about the leopard seals, but then someone spotted a pod of orcas – killer whales.

“We had to find a new spot. I didn’t want to let it affect me as I couldn’t let my supporters and my sponsors down. I had to try and shut off everything. I was a nervous wreck, but I didn’t want to show it.”

A woman swimming in the Antarctic with a boat alongside herCredit: James Pontin (BBC)
Pendleton’s Antarctic Swim

She adds: “In the end it was really, really good and I swam the mile in 32 minutes and 54 seconds. And the moment I was in the water I forgot about the wildlife. I hadn’t thought about the world record before then, but after the swim we had a real fight to prove what had happened.”

It took time for Pendleton to get her confirmation but she now has the Guinness World Record for the most southerly Ice Swim (1km+) by a woman.

The film about her record breaking swim is still available to watch on BBC iPlayer.

It was an amazing achievement. Then she flew back from the Antarctic and into the pandemic.

Back to earth with a bump

The UK was locked down within days of her returning home. All her plans had to be abandoned, and when she finally started getting back on track she went into the menopause and struggled with health issues.

“I had a bad year,” she admits. “I split up with my partner and it was a tough time. But now I am coming out the other side and I’m finally feeling like me again.”

The woman who is known as the Merthyr Mermaid spent last summer learning how to be one. She learned fin techniques and diving as part of the SSI Mermaid course.

A woman climbing into a swimming pool in the snowCredit: Cath Pendleton
Pendleton uses a small pool in her garden to train – whatever the weather

Free diving

“Then I watched the film My Octopus Teacher on Netflix,” she says. “So I decided to learn to free dive, which is where you dive without any supplementary oxygen.

“When I turned 50 last year, I decided I needed to treat myself. So I went to Finland and did freediving under the ice. It was absolutely bonkers. The television presenter Louise Minchin came with me, and it was scariest thing I think I’ve ever done.”

Minchin wrote about the duo’s trip in her new book Fearless.

Heading for the Arctic

Now Pendleton is preparing for her next challenge. She is hoping to head off to the Arctic in September to swim an ice mile there.

“It’s going to be filmed for another documentary,” she explains. “It’s been confirmed that it is happening, but I still can’t believe it will go ahead. I’m just keeping my head down and training for it.

“I’ve changed jobs to stacking shelves in Waitrose in the evenings, so I’ve got the days to train. If you really want to do something, you just need to do it.

“And if this Arctic trip does go ahead, then I’ll be the luckiest woman in the world. But if it doesn’t, then that’s OK too. If I win the lottery I’d go back to the Antarctic and swim with my bobble hat on and just take it all in this time, without the pressure on me.”

Two people swimming past an iceburgCredit: James Pontin (BBC)
Pendleton during one of her training swims in the Antarctic

“I’ve learnt what’s important is to do more of what makes you happy. You’ve got to do what makes your heart beat, not what everybody thinks you should do. If I listened to other people, I would never have got into ice swimming. But it’s what makes me happy, it’s when I feel the most like me. I’ve got some great supporters but most of them would never dream of doing what I do.

“We are all individuals, with our own dreams, our own passions, and we must never lose sight of that.”

Phillipa Cherryson

Written by Phillipa Cherryson she/her

Updated:

Phillipa Cherryson is a senior digital editor for Saga Exceptional. Phillipa has been a journalist for 30 years, writing for local and national newspapers, UK magazines and reporting onscreen for ITV. In her spare time she loves the outdoors and is a trainee mountain leader and Ordnance Survey Champion.

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