Cobalt Sport

John Myatt flies out for World Ice Swimming Championships in Murmansk

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Author: Roger Jackson, Posted: Tuesday, 12th March 2019, 14:20

John Myatt. Picture, Kurt Schroeder Photography John Myatt. Picture, Kurt Schroeder Photography

John Myatt flies out from Heathrow to Murmansk today and while that is a fairly arduous journey in itself, it’s fair to say that in many ways it is nothing compared to the journey that Myatt has been on over the past few years.

You see, Myatt is an ice swimmer and he is heading to Russia, and a trip of more than 2,250 miles, for the World Ice Swimming Championships.

Now for those who don’t know, ice swimming is a sport that takes place in water with a temperature of five degrees Celsius or below.

That’s pretty tough going for anyone but Myatt, who will be 47 tomorrow, is clearly one of those people who likes a challenge, and the tougher the better!

And, needless to say, when Myatt represents Great Britain in the ice 1K – he is competing in the 45-49 age group – the water temperature is expected to be considerably less than five degrees; in fact, it is expected to be zero degrees.

Myatt, a former Saintbridge School pupil who lives in Gloucester with his wife Becky and their two children, has always been into his swimming, although he only got back into it seven or so years ago and it’s only very recently that he got into ice swimming.

“I started out with Gloucester City Swimming Club when I was seven and I was with them until I was 17,” he said.

“I swam for Gloucester, the county and Western Counties. I was a fairly decent swimmer, but I certainly wasn’t a distance swimmer.”

In those days Myatt was primarily a 100-metre backstroke swimmer but although he trained very hard and enjoyed some success, he admits he was always disappointed that he never made it into the England Schools’ team.

It was when he left school and started work – he has worked for the Royal Mail for 29 years although initially he was a groundworker – that he felt he no longer had the time to commit to close on 20 hours of swimming training a week.

So he put away his goggles, his swimming trunks and cap and didn’t think about swimming – certainly competitively – for well over 20 years.

So what got him back into the sport?

“It was by chance,” he said. “I saw an advert in which someone was asking for people to join them to swim the Solent.

“I looked it up and it was clear these people meant business, they’d be training for six months.”

And that’s not surprising because the Solent is the stretch of water that separates mainland England from the Isle of Wight and, depending on the tide, is a distance of 2.5 to three miles.

That’s a lot of swimming especially for someone who had been a 100-metre swimmer back in the day, but Myatt was hooked and was determined to take up the challenge.

Not that it was all plain sailing of course.

“When I first started swimming again I was in total shock,” he admitted. “It was tough on my shoulders and I had to build up my swimming again slowly.”

Not too slowly mind you because by the end of the first week of training he was swimming up to four miles!

And the big day, when it came, was almost perfect.

“It was a clear day, the sun was shining and the water was 21 degrees,” recalled Myatt. “It was the most calming, blissful swim I’d ever done.

“They weren’t really good swimmers and I was able to enjoy the experience. Being out in the middle of the Solent I felt the freedom.”

And after that he wanted more, a lot more.

He took part in a 2Swim4Life event at Guildford Lido – an event that requires you to swim 24 miles in 24 hours – where he met English Channel swimmer Kate Vines who told him he had what it took to be a Channel swimmer himself.

“She planted a seed in my mind,” said Myatt.

He joined the swimfit sessions at GL1 and that’s where the story takes another twist.

“I met Mark Leighton who I’d swum with as a junior at Gloucester,” Myatt continued. “We both swam 100 metres backstroke so we competed against each other.

“He said he’d done a few open water events and said he wanted to swim the Channel. He suggested we did it as a team.”

So they did, completing a two-man Channel relay swim in July 2015 in 11 hours, 37 miles. That involves each swimmer swimming for an hour and then hopping onto a boat while his mate swims for an hour.

And while they appreciated the rest when they were out of the water, the event was much, much tougher than people may think.

“It was from Samphire Hoe to Cap Gris-Nez which is 21 miles as the crow flies but because of the currents we ended up doing about 30 miles,” said Myatt.

“It was difficult because it was stop-start and once I was on the boat I was sea-sick.”

That they did it was some achievement of course but they both felt they had more to give.

“We had all the banter from our mates saying that we’d only swum half the Channel,” said Myatt, a former rugby player who was at Spartans for 10 years from the age of 17.

“We both thought we hadn’t done enough.”

So they hatched a plan to do a two-way Channel relay swim though typically it was anything but straightforward.

They’d secured support from Rugby For Heroes through Alan Lamb, but it was Myatt’s body that was playing up.

They’d originally planned to do it in June 2017, then in the September of that year before actually completing it July 2018.

“I’d overtrained and picked up a shoulder injury,” explained Myatt. “I had four cortisones in my left shoulder, I was determined to find a way round my shoulder problem, I didn’t want to give up on our dream.”

So they set off for Dover in September 2017 but that was when fate intervened because the weather was too rough for them to swim and those extra few months gave Myatt a chance to get himself right for the challenges that lay ahead.

“I was ready to wreck and ruin my shoulder and that would have been the wrong thing to do,” admitted Myatt. “Thank god I didn’t.”

Instead he found a stroke technique called ‘Total Immersion’, which he then taught himself.

“It involves finding a nice balance and rhythm and slowing my strokes,” he said. “It takes me down deeper into the water with my hand entry, using my hips more than my shoulders to drive me forward.

“It’s been my saviour, I’m really conscious of my position in the water.”

He was also doing plenty of yoga at the time as well so was in as good a shape as he had been for a long time when he set off with Leighton on their two-way Channel swim.

And it’s fair to say that they smashed it because they completed in 22 hours, 49 minutes – 10 hours, 41 minutes to get to France and then 12 hours, eight minutes on the way back.

“We had a hell of a fight against the currents,” admitted Myatt. “That’s why a lot of people fail. The currents drag you sideways, you’ve got to be a really strong swimmer.

“I remember getting to France and sitting on a rock and thinking I’d got nothing left.”

Fortunately he had.

“It goes in fits and starts,” he continued, “but then you find another gear and get into a decent stroke.”

And he wasn’t alone either.

“I love the jellyfish,” he laughed. “I was getting stung left, right and centre but that stimulated me, I found it therapeutic.

“It was just me, my trunks, my goggles, my cap and the jellyfish in the water!”

So that was another challenge ticked off but there have been plenty of others.

“I met David Stevens at Cotswold Water Park and he told me I could do an ice swim,” said Myatt. “And he said that if the cold makes it feel like you’ve got hot pokers under your fingernails to just keep going!”

And Myatt, who has been training at Lake 32 at Cotswold Water Park with his good friend Donald McDonald, has certainly taken Stevens’ advice on board because he completed an Ice Mile in January last year – something that has been achieved by fewer than 300 people.

And in January this year he produced another eye-catching performance that saw him become Great Britain ice 1K age group champion.

“It was in the 45-49 age group,” he said. “The championships were in Hatfield but I don’t usually like competing because I don’t like losing!

“I was nervous, apprehensive because I hadn’t competed since I was 17 but I felt it was something I needed to do.”

And it was a jolly good job he did do it because he completed in 15 minutes, 45, which was three minutes ahead of his nearest rival and he reckons he can take a minute off that time.

The next stop is Murmansk – the trip is self-funding – where he will be competing in a 25-metre pool and he can’t wait for everything to get going.

“I have to pinch myself all the time,” he said. “I was really gutted as a junior not to get into the England Schools’ squad.

“I didn’t have the height or build and even with all the effort I put in I always felt something was missing. Now I’m a British champion and I’m representing Great Britain, it’s unbelievable.”

Indeed it is. It truly is a remarkable story and even the training has been less than conventional at times.

“On Sunday night I was sat in a bath outside the Old Bell in Southgate Street, Gloucester,” he said.

Except it wasn’t really a bath as Myatt explains.

“It was an old fridge which was tipped on its side,” he said. “We’d taken all the shelves out and filled it with ice. I know the landlord Nick Fullbrook and I was sat outside by the bins.

“It was like something out of a Rocky film!”

Rocky Balboa is a hugely popular movie character but Myatt will be competing for real of course. And although it’s a fair old way to Murmansk, he certainly isn’t complaining about the location of the third World Ice Swimming Championships.

“My grandad, Albert Myatt, was in the merchant navy in World War Two,” said Myatt, “and he was part of the arctic convoy that stopped off in Murmansk.

“It’s nice that we’ll both have represented our country there in different ways.”

Other Images

John Myatt is Great Britain ice 1K age group champion. Picture, Kurt Schroeder Photography
John Myatt is set to compete in the third World Ice Swimming Championships. Picture, Kurt Schroeder Photography

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