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Swim the Cam will make a splash in Cambridge this weekend

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Swim the Cam 2016
Swim the Cam 2016

Wild swimming is a very popular sport – and one that has a long history in Cambridge.

Jackie Elliott (now Jackson). Born in Cambridge, she won the Swim Through 10 times during the 1950s and early 1960s seen here with her daughter Cate Jackson . Picture: Keith Heppell
Jackie Elliott (now Jackson). Born in Cambridge, she won the Swim Through 10 times during the 1950s and early 1960s seen here with her daughter Cate Jackson . Picture: Keith Heppell

Places for this year’s Swim the Cam sold out within days of being advertised on social media. That’s 50 people who will swim the 3.8km from Bryon’s Pool to Sheep’s Green at 11am on Saturday, July 15.

The event revives a competition which once attracted about 200 swimmers to the city’s river and could, like swims of the past, become an annual fixture.

“The response has been amazing,” says Jo Black, one of four volunteers organising Swim the Cam ‘17. “We’re hoping it will become a regular fixture in the open water swimming calendar.”

This is Swim the Cam’s second year. Last year’s event was run by Duncan Catchpole as a fundraiser for a new Cambridge food charity.

He said: “When we launched the Sustainable Food Hub in 2016 we had no money at all. I’m a keen swimmer, so I came up with the idea of swimming the River Cam. It was a huge success. All 22 swimmers completed the event and we used the money raised to make a YouTube film to boost awareness of the food hub.”

Jo, a swimming teacher from Ely, took part in last year’s swim – and enjoyed it so much that she volunteered to help organise this year’s event. “I loved swimming in the river with lots of other friendly people. My dad died at Christmas so when Duncan asked for volunteers to run it again, I thought it’d be a positive thing to do when everything seemed so bleak.

“Swimming in the river is so much nicer than the pool – the water feels soft and you get a lovely view of the meadows. And when I’m swimming in the river, I imagine all the different residents who’ve swum there over the years.”

Although Swim the Cam is a social event, it represents ripples of the famous Swim Through Cambridge. Organised for more than 40 years before and after the Second World War by the Granta Swimming Club, the Swim Through was – like the Bumps and Midsummer Fair – an integral ingredient of Cambridge summers.

Held over two consecutive July evenings until the mid-1970s, the Swim Through saw dozens race the three-quarters of a mile along the Backs from the Mill Pond to Jesus Green. Ladies and girls swam on the Thursday evening, followed by men and boys on the Friday.

Swimmers from across East Anglia came to Cambridge for the Swim Through, which in its 1960s heyday attracted around 200 swimmers, from primary school children to people in their 60s. The event’s most successful swimmer was Jackie Elliott (now Jackson). Born in Cambridge, she won the Swim Through 10 times during the 1950s and early 1960s.

Her 1956 record of 18 minutes 54 seconds stood for almost 20 years until the last edition of the race in 1975. That summer, her time was broken by six female swimmers including her daughter Cate Jackson. And Jackie’s son Andy won the under-14 title in 1974.

“They say Cambridge has strange events, like the Bumps – the Swim Through was one of those. And it was a big event at the time,” says Jackie. “We all got down to the Mill Pond and had our photograph taken. Then we were put into our heats – the older ones first – and we went off every minute from a pontoon moored by the bridge.

“I’d sprint to Silver Street bridge to get clear of the pack. It was full of people cheering. The Bridge of Sighs was full of people and Magdalene Bridge was also full of people. And when you got to the finish at Jesus Green – that was full of people too,” she recalled.

“The Old George and Dragon pub let us have a room to get changed. Mothers were there with hot drinks and blankets – you’d think we’d swum the Channel rather than three-quarters of a mile. It was all very exciting. When we were older, we’d retire back to the Mill and the pub would fill the cup with Merrydown cider and we’d sit on the bridge and pass it round. We all had a lovely time.”

At 79, Jackie still races but gets most pleasure from teaching people in their 60s and 70s to swim.

“I was the third fastest in Europe in my age group last year – which doesn’t say much for Europe!” she said. “You’d have thought by now that I’d have lost my love of swimming but it never has gone. I get more thrill when these older dears learn to swim than they do. Swimming’s in my genes.”

Swim the Cam ‘17 is sponsored by Marshall, SmithsonHill, Seahorse Swim School and supported by the Cambridge Independent.

Follow the event on Twitter: @swimthecam.

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