Wildly popular: the woman inspiring wild swimming all over the world

How Bluetits founder Sian Richardson’s passion for cold water created a global community

Wild swimming has become one of the UK’s fastest-growing outdoor pastimes, with more than four million of us saying that we have swum in the sea, rivers, lakes or lochs.

During the pandemic, the activity exploded in popularity and a small group from South Wales who’d been swimming together for about six years became a global sensation. The Bluetits founder Sian Richardson says it’s been life-changing for her and its thousands of members.

A woman on a beachCredit: The Bluetits
Sian Richardson, the founder of The Bluetits Chill Swimmers

“I’m always asked what is it about the cold water that transforms people,” she says.

“Cold water gives you that immediate injection of adrenaline. Before I started swimming, I used to run, and it would take three or four miles to get that feeling of, yeah, everything’s great in the world. With cold water you get it within 90 seconds. You feel alive, colours are more intense, everybody looks beautiful, and you feel amazing.”

Richardson, 58, has lived in Pembrokeshire all her life and runs a caravan park near the sea with her husband Alan. She laughs when asked if she’s always been into cold-water swimming or sports.

“I didn’t do any sports until I was diagnosed with depression at the end of the 1990s,” she says. “They wanted to give me pills, but I didn’t like the idea of being on medication. Then someone said I should start running. I’d never been athletic, and I was quite heavy at time, but I started running in the dark. Well, it was just walking initially – I was so embarrassed.

“I couldn’t understand why anyone ran – it was awful. But then I found I was starting to enjoy the challenge, so I kept on running in the dark and as I got fitter, I decided to enter a half marathon.

Three women on a beachCredit: The Bluetits
Richardson (left) with fellow Bluetits members

“It was just more than 13 miles but in my mind it might as well have been 200. I told myself it was unachievable and it was ridiculous. Everyone was going to laugh at me – I was going to make a fool of myself.”

On the day of the marathon in Cardiff, Richardson’s husband and five children all went along to support her.

She remembers: “I was crying, saying I couldn’t do it, but they were cheering me on. And many hours later I finished it. I had blisters on my feet, but I didn’t care because I felt like superwoman. My family all thought I was amazing and so I signed up for more half marathons, then marathons and then endurance runs. But then I got up to 52-mile runs, and I thought no more.

Richardson switched her focus to triathlons. She had to learn to swim and to ride a bike and felt she was back to square one, reduced to tears in the pool.

But once again, she persevered and successfully completed a triathlon. She even attempted an Ironman (a long-distance triathlon) but didn’t finish because she was too slow to make the cut off time.

She started to find that the training left her in more and more pain and was finally told by doctors she would need a double hip replacement.

It was while Richardson was waiting for the surgery that her love affair with cold-water swimming began. A friend told her about the ice mile – a mile swim in water with a temperature of five degrees or less, wearing just a standard swimming costume, goggles and hat.

It’s been described as ‘the Everest of swimming’, but Richardson laughs: “I just heard the mile swim bit of it, and I thought that wasn’t too far to go. It was October 2014 and I got into the sea.

A group of women in the sea on a beachCredit: The Bluetits
The Bluetits isn’t just a swimming group, but a community

“I was shocked at how cold it was, but I’d decided to be the first Welsh woman to complete an ice mile, so I was going to do this. As I began training swims in the sea near my home, people saw what I was doing and started joining me in the water, and our group of swimmers grew and grew.

“One day my husband said he hadn’t seen me so happy for a long time. He said: ‘You are laughing louder, your skin is a different colour’.

“He said my group needed a name and he came up with The Bluetits – and that’s where all it started.”

Richardson eventually did the ice mile, although another Welsh woman, Cath Pendleton, beat her to it.

“But I was the first Welsh woman to complete an extreme ice mile,” she adds. “I was in 4.2-degree water for 48 minutes. Only 47 women in the world have completed one to date.”

The Bluetits

Once Richardson had established the Bluetits, she soon found she’d started not just a group, but a fast-growing movement. Guests staying at the family caravan park asked about her swimming and wanted to start their own groups across the country.

She says: “I really encouraged them, and free Bluetit swimming groups started springing up all over the place. I made up some badges, because I grew up loving Blue Peter badges, and they got so popular that after three years my husband asked if I realised how much all these badges were costing us.

“So we started selling t-shirts to pay for the badges. Then my daughter-in-law asked if I wanted some help, then a friend joined and then another. Now we have a website, we send out newsletters and our groups are across social media. We run the business as a social enterprise – a business with a social or environmental purpose which ploughs back its profits to support its goals. But it remains free for everyone.”

While most are in the UK, there are 200 groups and 108,000 Bluetit members globally, including men and women.

A group of women walking into the seaCredit: The Bluetits
The Bluetits is for everyone, no matter who they are

Richardson is proud of the supportive, fun and challenging community she has inspired: “We swim together and we never know who’s going to be there each time. We don’t meddle in people’s lives so you can come to a group and be anything you want to be.

“While I was waiting for my two new hips the pain was getting worse, it felt like my life was coming to an end. I was 55, I was using sticks to walk and I was mortified to turn up like that. But the members of the group helped me. They carried my bags for me, they held my sticks for me. Then the cold water got rid of everything and for the next hours I would feel OK again. I will always be grateful to that community around me. They got me through that long wait for my operation.”

She says that every member gets the same support from the group.

“We are a family now, a global family that encourages each other, helps each other, challenges each other and champions each other.”

men and women on a beachCredit: The Bluetits
A global family that supports and champions its members

“Everywhere I go members of the group want to talk to me and tell me their stories about how swimming in cold water has changed their lives.

“I always end up in tears and getting home late because I am talking to them for so long and I never, ever, get tired of hearing their stories.

“They keep spurring me on. I think, how incredible that something so seemingly simple – you just put on a swimsuit and go for a swim with these free groups – can have such amazing things come from it.”

“Cold-water swimming makes you forget everything that is going on in your life, because the only thing you can think about in those first 90 seconds is survival. Your brain is shrieking ‘oh my god, she’s trying to kill us’.  It really is all systems go and you completely forget everything else going on in your life.


“Then afterwards you get that Bluetit glow. It isn’t just the colour of our skin, it’s the way our faces have lifted, our bodies are taller and we all we feel like superheroes.  That’s what cold-water swimming can do.”

A woman in a bobble hat smilingCredit: The Bluetits
Richardson says cold-water swimming has changed her life

What next for The Bluetits

Richardson has more plans for the group and her family are right behind her.

She says: “We are now a worldwide community with 108,000 members. Now that we’ve been going a few years people are interested in entering events. It’s not for everyone and we’re not pushing anyone to do it, but the community has grown organically. In January 40 Bluetits went from the UK to Slovenia, to Lake Bled, to take part in the Winter Swimming Championships.

“We’re also working with other organisations, including Surfers Against Sewage to learn more about pollution and what our organisation can do.

“There’s the economic side too. We provide jobs year-round in Pembrokeshire and our members support their communities across the UK after all the summer tourists have gone home.

People standing in the surf on a beach at sunsetCredit: The Bluetits
Bluetits members are supporting coastal communities

“For a while Bluetits did take over and I was stuck inside doing admin, but now I make the extra effort to swim three times a week with my local Bluetits group, which has made me so happy. I never know who’s going to be there. Sometimes we barely go in the water because it’s too rough, other times we can have the best swim and sometimes there is so much cake I can hardly walk home afterwards.”

“Whoever you are you can come and do this, and you will feel amazing afterwards.

“Anybody can do it – and you don’t have to buy an expensive bike or trainers. It is something so simple, but it can be absolutely life-changing.”

Phillipa Cherryson

Written by Phillipa Cherryson she/her


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.

  • instagram
  • Email