Helen and Hayley Brant’s journey began 5 years ago when they decided to raise funds for the British Heart Foundation by taking part in the Marlow Open Water and the Great London Open Water Swims in memory of their younger sister, Heather, who passed away from an undetected heart condition in December, 2009. In honor of their sister, TI swimmers Helen and Haley turned to open water swimming to cope with their grief and raise funds for the British Heart Foundation. Read more about their campaign here.
It’s been said that people who embark on extreme challenges usually have a story to tell. December 16th 2009 is the day our story started. Our younger sister, Heather, was an incredible woman who gave so much of herself to so many and her untimely passing from an unknown heart condition was a shock to us all. She was just 36.
People react to grief in many ways. How it affects you and how long it lasts depends on many things. It was my older sister, Helen, who first suggested that we take up an open water swimming challenge, both as a coping mechanism and to raise funds for the British Heart Foundation in Heathers memory.
After months of self-coaching the next chapter of our story was written. It was 23rd August 2013 and we found ourselves on a stretch of the River Thames in Marlow, Bucks. Through the driving rain we reviewed the 1 mile course from left to right. This was our very first open water timed event. Adrenaline took over as we entered the water for a mass start countdown and the sound of the starters horn. We still laugh now at the lesson we quickly learned – unless you’re planning on a hard, fast race, don’t position yourself front and centre. We exited the water some 40 minutes later, both exhausted and thrilled at what we had accomplished. We wanted to find a way of involving Heather, so we asked the organisers if they would put some flowers in the water for us. They were so willing to get involved and positioned them beautifully on the edge of the finishing gantry. It was wonderful to see them as we approached the end of the swim.
The gesture of including flowers has gone on to become a ritual that motivates and inspires us at all our events. Organisers have been only too happy to help by laying them in the water along the route and rewarding us with a 3rd medal. Over the years, we amassed a healthy collection of medals and every summer we take them with us on our annual trip to Cyprus. Cyprus holds some amazing memories for us as children, especially a small jetty where played and swam together. Our visits to the jetty are usually spent sharing our stories with Heather and leaving that year’s medal collection in a secret place for our mermaid sister to enjoy.
For the next 2 years we continued to self-coach and to raise the bar in terms of the distance. We entered a Coniston End to End swim in 2014 (8.5km) and then the Jubilee River swim in 2015 (10km), both of which were hugely out of our comfort zones and we were delighted to be able to complete them.
Fast forward to December 2015 and with long distance events booked in the River Thames and Lake Windermere, as well as thoughts of an English Channel Relay, we both agreed that we should consider some coaching. We had spent the winter dipping in the River Thames and one swimmer caught our eye. His stroke was so clean, smooth and effortless. He talked enthusiastically about ‘T.I.’ and within a matter of weeks Helen and I were booked for our initial assessment with Tracey Baumann.
We arrived for our assessment in January 2016, nervous and excited. Tracey’s facility and the technology she uses is first class and she spent time getting to know us, our goals, analysing our stroke and talking through the Total Immersion process. Although we had already completed a few long-distance swims, we were by no means experts. I think every swimmer wants to go ‘faster’ but what we really wanted to know was how we could swim for even longer and go further. By the time we left, we knew that we had embarked on a journey of discovery that would shape us to be the best swimmers we could be.
Our lessons continued and with patience and pride Tracey taught us the fundamentals of Total Immersion, carefully explaining the ‘what’ AND the ‘why’, to impress the importance of each focal point and its relationship with other elements of the stroke.
Week after week we practised hard and the excitement around our progress led to talk of an English Channel Relay once again. We were already booked to do the swims that soloists would consider in the run up to a crossing, so this seemed to make perfect sense. We spent time with Tracey filling our ‘Toolbox’ as she would call it, and many hours practising together. It wasn’t long before our confidence started to grow along with a belief that we could actually do this. Our Total Immersion journey had literally stripped us back to the basics of swimming, even undoing habits we thought impossible to undo. We were rapidly improving and refining our technique as well as being educated on the importance of balance and stability to make us more streamlined in the water.
Every year we had committed to raising the bar and just 3 months after our Total Immersion training started, we booked our English Channel 2-Person Relay window for September 2017. Team Aitch Sea Jays was born!
We still had some challenging swims ahead of this, including a Lake Windermere End to End (18K), so the training and coaching with Tracey continued in earnest. We worked hard together and on longer swims we took it in turns to suggest different focal points to work on. By the time our swim arrived, we were ready. Helen had been carrying a shoulder injury but had worked with Tracey to make some adjustments to her technique that offered some relief on longer swims. It was an early start with flat calm conditions and things got underway strongly. At around the 7km mark Helen started to experience increasing pain in her shoulder. Quite remarkably, she swam for a further 4.5km before finally having to call her swim. We had always completed all our swims together but selflessly she urged me to continue and I went on to finish.
We both gained so much from our Windermere experience and we channelled (no pun intended!) all of it into building a plan for the ‘big one’! Following a short rest, we were back in the pool for a winter season of coaching with Tracey that would see us ready to join other 2017 English Channel hopefuls on Swimmers Beach in Dover.
By now our stroke was unrecognisable from that first lesson and video footage in January 2016. Total Immersion is an ongoing learning cycle and our desire to swim for longer and go further was fast becoming a reality. We spent a lot of time working on single elements of our stroke, sometimes using a whole training session to just nail one thing! We were spending almost every weekend in Dover, challenged by the ever-changing conditions and trying to maintain good form. For most the season, we opted to do more than the standard ‘2-dips’ if time allowed, regularly doing 3 or 4 with a 30-minute break in between. It was all great preparation for the big event and on Sept 18th, 2017, a little after 5am, our swim began. We had discussed in detail what would motivate us and we arranged for some of the focal points to be laminated in large print. We were diligent in adopting one focal point every hour, and using this to try to exit the water as better swimmers. Our moment of glory came 19hrs and 19mins later when Helens hand touched French sand. We have both since agreed that if we’d been asked to keep swimming, we could have. Our return to the UK following that swim saw us stop slap bang in the middle of the English Channel to lay our flowers for Heather. This ritual will never change.
We will end this blog by saying that grief stays with you, it becomes part of you. Our decision to do something for ourselves and the charity we strongly believe in has been a life changing experience for countless reasons. The introduction to Total Immersion gave us the confidence and strength, both physically and emotionally to achieve things we never thought possible.
Helen and I have different goals for the coming seasons, but swimming will always be something we do together. Helen has her sights on an Ice Mile and one of the Scottish Lochs and I have just completed my 6-hour qualifier for an English Channel Solo in June 2019. Every day, we know that Heather is watching and that she is immensely proud of us.