Laois woman prepares for epic cold water long distance swim

Lynda Kiernan

Reporter:

Lynda Kiernan

Laois woman prepares for epic cold water long distance swim

Joan Fennelly from Mountmellick who is swimming in her biggest challenge yet this summer.

A Laois native who has become a fearless long distance cold water swimmer is preparing for her biggest challenge yet.

Software sales director Joan Fennelly from Mountmellick learned to swim like many others in the local Owenass river as a child.

She now lives in Henley in the UK and after getting proper lessons for her 50th birthday, Joan took to the open water and joined the Henley Open Water Swimming Club.

She is now one of the Henley Mermaids, five women who swim together in all weathers in the Thames river and take on charity challenges.

In 2018 Joan had completed a personal challenge to swim 100km in 100 days for charity.

Last year the Mermaids successfully completed a relay swim across the English Channel from England to France, braving huge waves and jellyfish and avoiding cruise liners, wearing just swimsuits and hats with no wetsuits allowed.

Now she hopes to raise big money for four Irish charities by swimming the Bristol Channel with the Mermaids.
 
Their swim will be on July 22, is the anniversary of their English Channel relay.  

“As the crow flies, it's a distance of 25 miles, but as per our English Channel relay, it could end up being a lot more, as it's the second strongest tidal waterway in the world.  If we succeed, we will be the first ever all female relay team to do it,” she said.

The team normally trains in indoor pools during the winter, but with those being closed, they are eager to get back in the open water.

“We are delighted that spring is approaching, the days are getting longer and the rivers and lakes are starting to warm up.  With no access to pools or lidos during lockdown, we have not been able to do any distance training over the winter months, so we will have a lot of ground to make up in building fitness for our Bristol Channel relay in the coming months.  In the meanwhile, we are all keeping as active as we can with hiking, biking, spinning, pilates and yoga. 

“Despite the challenges we have had with training, there is a lot of momentum building already behind the scenes about the event and this year.  

“I'm hopeful that we will be able to stream the event live online, so that many more people can join in and be with us virtually on the boat as we take on the challenge, versus the select group of people we had on a WhatsApp group for our English Channel relay, which was frustratingly limited to 250 people!

They hope to raise a lot of money for their chosen British and Irish charities.

“This year, the girls asked me to line up a charity for us to work with, so I opted to work with Sunrise for Brain Conditions, which is a Not for Profit partnership which acts as a platform for running events and fundraising for four Irish charities covering Huntington's Disease, Parkinson's Disease, Motor Neurone Disease and Multiple Sclerosis.  

“Albeit that I am the only Irish person on the Henley Mermaids team, the idea subsequently evolved to bring in 'sister' British charities that also cover these four conditions, so it will also be the first time that there will be Irish and British charities all collaborating around one event,” Joan said.

She is grateful for the past support from her home town and country.

“I've done a lot of fundraising over the years for British and International charities, for which a lot of my family, friends, colleagues  in Ireland have donated very generously. 

“This year, I'm delighted that sufferers of these conditions in Ireland can hopefully benefit from funds raised, as well as helping to raise awareness around these conditions,” she said.

In Ireland every year, over 44,000 people are diagnosed with a brain condition such as MND, MS, Parkinsons or Huntington's Disease, yet with only 34 neurological consultants in Ireland, Ireland has the lowest number of consultants per capita in the western world.  

“Another example is that Ireland currently doesn't yet have equipment for doing Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) which helps sufferers of conditions such as Parkinson's Disease  - currently, sufferers of these conditions have to travel to Belfast or the UK for DBS treatment adding extra anxiety and expense to an already stressful situation. 

“Essentially, awareness of these conditions and access to specialist medical and support services in Ireland is way behind what it is here in the UK, where I live. Hopefully, the Henley Mermaids 2021 campaign will help raise both awareness and funding to support sufferers and families living with these conditions, both in Ireland and the UK,” Joan said.

Supporters can keep up with their progress via blogs on their new dedicated website www.henleymermaids.com.  

Donations can be made to the eight charities being supported via the website. By clicking the Irish flag, people can donate to the four Irish charities working under the Sunrise for Brain Conditions banner.  

“As ever, I am massively appreciative of the support which I have received from the people of Laois over the years, and hopefully their support will continue for this year's campaign,” Joan Fennelly said.