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How 400 sheep and 200 cows helped Sophie Casson break world records

Sophie Casson, Swim England masters performance award winner for the past two years, is a multiple freestyle world record holder but she also excels in her day job – as a farmer. Here the 34-year-old explains how her work has helped her in the pool. 

Farming is incredibly rewarding, interesting and exhausting – but I think, in some ways, it does help my swimming.

I live just north of Lancaster, on the Lancashire/Cumbria border farming 400 breeding sheep and looking after 200 Fresian cows. I work from 5.45am until 4-5pm then train from 8-9.30pm and I try to get four or five swim sessions a week.

I’m fully involved on the family farm. With no brothers, it’s just my dad and I.

I work six full days a week with only one day off most weeks. At lambing time, I often work for three months without a day off, working 3am-6pm. I call it my land training programme!

On a farm, there is never a typical week, every single day there is something different to do. Of course, we feed the calves/cows every day and check stock but there has never been two days the same. I could be putting fences up in the morning and vaccinating sheep in the afternoon.

So, no early morning training as I am up at 5.30am for work.

Being physical all day helps my endurance and gives me a strong work ethic. I am never scared of hard work. So, yes it probably does give me an edge with the strength side of swimming. 

I don’t need to lift weights when I have already lifted 10 x 25kg bags and numerous buckets of milk, although I am usually totally bushed before I start training in the evenings. 

Therefore, I don’t always have the energy I would have if I had a more sedentary job and I can also get quite run down if I get over tired.

I’d love to still be competing at 80

Sophie Casson

I don’t particularly have favourite animals but sheep make me laugh. They are full of character – cheeky animals when you get to know them and not as stupid as they look!

I swim at my original club Carnforth Otters near Lancaster. A hard-working little club. I train with a group of 15-19 year-olds. They certainly keep me on my toes.

My coach is Mark Smith, he’s really built the club up these last few years producing a handful of national standard swimmers. Everyone at Carnforth is a volunteer, which is very unusual now for swimming clubs.

I do believe it is important to have some kind of a coaching at masters level. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a swim coach, it could be a mentor or someone who gives you advice or helps to discuss ideas or goals you have. I have a very supportive partner who also competes in masters swimming which helps hugely on a social level. 

As we all know, training hours for masters aren’t the most friendly.

I have been competing in masters swimming since 2011 so I’m still at the early stages of the sport.

There are so many talented senior swimmers that I really aspire to emulate and I would love to still be competing at 80 years old.

I have never considered myself as ‘a good swimmer’. It is never about what I achieve. For me, it has always been about the absolute escape I feel when I am in the water.

Having said that, I did get four golds and one silver medal at the masters worlds in Budapest 2017.

A couple of my other masters achievements that stand out are the 200m Backstroke European record (s/c) from the nationals in Sheffield 2017, as although it wasn’t a world record, my race felt close to perfect and the world mark is a very fast 2.11.86, held by the Japanese Olympian Kana Yamaguchi, so quite a target!

Why I stick with swimming

Another one is the 200m Freestyle world record again set in October 2017, as I chased that for a couple of years and I don’t consider myself a natural 200m Freestyle swimmer, so I was quite proud when I broke the world record.

I am having a relatively quiet year in 2019. I am still training but decided not to compete in the long course British Masters, as I am not race fit and also made a decision a while ago that I wouldn’t compete in Korea at the World Masters. 

I feel it is nice sometimes to enjoy training with no overall goal, or the pressure of racing. 

To be totally honest, I actually prefer to just train and not compete. I get so sick of mushy bananas, chomping down cereal bars and using leisure centre toilets. 

However, I enjoy the short course Nationals so may well be at Sheffield in October.

I started swimming at the age of six. It was a choice between ballet or swimming, and if you know me, you would understand why I didn’t choose a tutu and pink shoes!

My parents always instilled into me that ‘anything was possible’. I was always allowed to dream and if I wanted to have a go. They fully supported me and if I didn’t achieve or do something, they thought: ‘What’s the big deal?’. 

I was never told ‘no you can’t do that’ or ‘you are too small to carry that’. In fact, being a farmer’s daughter, I was always carrying or picking up things that were probably too heavy!

A lot of people ask me why stick with swimming, but I always have the same reply: Because I absolutely love that first dive into the water. Even when you have to dig deep to motivate yourself to leave the comfy sofa on a dark winter night to go training, nothing beats the quietness of the water and the feeling you have after a good training session.

I moved to Stirling University at 20, from Carnforth. Unfortunately, from doing only four or five sessions a week, the step up to 12 sessions a week was too much for me but, helped by my win in the 200m Backstroke at the British Nationals in Manchester, I decided to move to Loughborough University to study sports science.

Best achievement

Sophie Casson

There, I was under the wing of coach Ian Armiger. He was an absolute inspiration to me (and I’m sure to a lot of swimmers that passed through his squad).

On Ian’s squad, I had one ambition and that was to make one GB team. If I achieved that, I would have accomplished everything I had dreamed of. 

I gave everything to try achieve my goal even working as a part time labourer for a property maintenance firm, with any free time I had to pay for food and competitions. As most people know, swimming isn’t the best paid sport!

Ian recognised my talent for distance swimming with my strong work ethic in training (the boys used to call me ‘The Cassonator’) and steered me towards open water, which I am so thankful for. And yes, I secured my childhood dream of GB selection.

Another of my best achievements at senior level was on home ground in Sheffield – the summer of 2009. I won the open 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyles in one meet. It was one of those occasions swimmers train for, everything felt super easy as if you are skipping over the water.

It doesn’t happen very often but I think every swimmer has had one of those swims where they feel like that.

All in all, my four-and-a-half years in Loughborough were a fantastic experience. It set me up for the next chapter, the one I’m on now.

As for my ‘best’ coach, that depends where I have been in my career. Ian Armiger was obviously extremely significant and with him steering me into distance swimming enabled me to achieve my childhood dream. 

However, I also had a fantastic coach, Elaine Howard, when I was 12 or 13 who was ahead of her time in coaching. She recognised how important technique was and spent hours with me. She gave me the building blocks and enabled me to build from them for the rest of my career.

I love the social aspect of masters and the fact that swimming is a wonderful sport that can still be enjoyed by all ages up until 100. It is a community of like-minded people taking part in something they have enjoyed for most, if not all, of their lives.

Sophie’s three top tips for masters swimmers:

  • Don’t take it too seriously – most of us kick ourselves when we don’t achieve what we want to. In the grand scheme of things, we are only doing it for fun. There is always next time.
  • Have more than one aim for a meet. Choose a few events and have goals in each, so if you don’t achieve what you want in one event, there is still the next event.
  • Don’t waste a session. If you have made it to training (sometimes a massive effort at masters level) try and make something out of each session even if your head’s not in it, get some km’s in. It is always good to get metres in the bank even if it is not as fast as you would like.
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