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'I'd be dead if it wasn't for swimming ... now I want to swim the channel'

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When Helen Bull was diagnosed with cancer, she took up swimming again to help her cope with the gruelling treatment she was going through. Now Helen is one of the stars of the latest Swim-England-led #LoveSwimming campaign – Moving Medicine – and is aiming to swim the Channel. Here, she explains how swimming has given her a new outlook on life.

It may sound extreme, but I strongly believe that I’d be dead by now if I hadn’t started swimming again.

Having being diagnosed with cancer a few years earlier and continuously going through heavy treatment, I decided to get back into the pool for the first time since retiring from competitive swimming at a national level more than 20 years ago.

At first, I just went to my local pool a few times a week. I’ve always been a pool swimmer. I love the accuracy of lengths and the reassuring smell of chlorine.

My thinking was that getting fit and active again would help me cope with the cancer treatment I was going through. Straight away, being back in the water helped with the awful bone pain I was experiencing.

But the biggest surprise of all was how it helped to lift my mood. I was sleeping better and I felt I was coping better with my treatment.

I’d fallen in love with the water again.

The more I went to the pool, the more I got chatting to other swimmers. I started swimming with the local masters squad, which consisted of some triathletes.

Some more conversations later, I somehow found myself agreeing to swimming in the sea. It was something I had never done before, despite living 20 metres from the seafront!

At 40-years-old, I found myself climbing into a wetsuit and preparing to wade into the sea in Bognor Regis.

That first sea swim was terrifying. I was shocked how much tougher it was compared to the pool. From coping with the cold, the salty, seaweed-filled water, to the push of the current and the crashing waves, which constantly startled me.

We did about a one kilometre loop up and around the local pier and afterwards I felt exhausted, but also exhilarated. Once I was out of the water, I knew I wanted more.

More opportunities came along very quickly. Before I knew it, my friends had enrolled me in various events.

I’ve travelled to Ireland to swim in the iconic Glendalough, swam an Ironman distance lake race, been part of a triathlon lake relay team and took on a 1.5km charity sea swim in the worst conditions imaginable.

There is lots more planned, too. I’ve entered the Dart 10k and several lake swims. We also went swimming in the sea on New Year’s Day. That was a whole different level of cold.

My ultimate goal is to do a solo channel swim and I’m currently trying to secure a pilot for later in the year.

I continue to train in the pool as well. I have found that open water swimming has improved my performance in the pool. Now that was a benefit I didn’t see coming!

My health remains unsettled and I’m still going through treatment. However, I don’t see that as an obstacle – if anything it motivates me more.

The stronger I can get myself, the better I’ll cope with the treatment. The buzz of swimming out in the elements is by far better than any pain management drugs.

Life is very precious and there’s a whole world of open water swimming out there to explore.

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