Q&A: Swimathon Chair Anthony Kendall on mass participation and charities

30 Sep 2020

By: Sport Industry Group

With mass participation events impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, and with charities feeling the impact of the knock-on effects, Sport Industry Group chatted to Swimathon Foundation Chair Anthony Kendall about running a charity event in 2020 and what the impact of lockdown will be on the sport of swimming.

How does this year’s Swimathon differ from previous years?
More than 750,000 have taken part in Swimathon challenges over the last 33 years, collectively raising over £54 million for charitable causes. 

We have had to evolve this year’s Swimathon event in response to the COVID-19 pandemic but the great news is that we’ve still been able to offer an opportunity to take on a challenge for our wonderful charity partners Cancer Research UK and Marie Curie.

In recent years, we have focused heavily on developing the digital infrastructure of Swimathon and were a very early adopter of a virtual challenge via our MySwimathon product which we introduced many years ago now. So we have been in a strong position to move all of our amazing swimmers over to a virtual offer in response to the current climate. Swimmers up and down the country are currently taking on their swimming challenge and raising much needed funds for Cancer Research UK and Marie Curie. In change to previous events, and in response to the restrictions in place at swimming venues, MySwimathon can be done in one session or spread across multiple days.

So although it’s been a challenging year for the campaign, we still see it as an exciting time for our long term future.  As a result, we’ve launched the MySwimathon tracker to allow swimmers to link up with Strava and their fitness devices to automatically track their swims. We hope to develop this even further into 2021 and ensure that digital stays at the heart of the Swimathon offer. 

What challenges have you faced in putting together a digital only event this year?
Initially, we battled with the fact that swimming pools weren’t open, then once the leisure sector was given the green light to reopen, we worked closely with operators to ensure swimmers could get back safely and that our offer fell within the return to swim guidelines that the swimming venues were working to.

Under the new guidelines, swimmers tend to be required to book less than one hour-long slots at venues. Therefore, we had to make the challenge flexible to allow people to complete their swims over a number of days to accommodate the new restrictions.  

We then had to ensure that our MySwimathon tracker product was suitable for this more flexible challenge, a bit of a headache for our developers but we got there!

Finally, all of the above needed to come with some very close consideration to how our messaging has been communicated. We’ve had to ensure clarity of message (at a time when clarity hasn’t always been forthcoming!) whilst still retaining the enthusiasm and excitement that every Swimathon campaign brings. Flexibility has also been key, and we’ve been delighted with the way our audience has responded to our efforts to keep the Swimathon campaign alive and kicking this year. 

The role of the Swimathon Foundation has always been to support community swimmers, protect facilities and help charities and I hope that we can continue to do that in this revised format.

Tell us about supporting charities during COVID-19 - the charity sector has faced a shortfall, but we’ve seen the mass participation sector come together for events like the 2.6 Challenge to help out.

I think the pandemic has shown the power of community and how powerful people coming together can be. That’s why we’ve seen so many incredible fundraising initiatives, like the 2.6 Challenge and others, over the last six months.

However, it’s no secret that the charitable sector has been severely hit by COVID-19, with reports estimating a £6.4bn loss of vital funds, which will have a catastrophic effect on the important work that they do to support communities. 

The Swimathon Foundation is currently raising funds for Cancer Research UK and Marie Curie, two organisations that provide lifelines for so many people across the country, and that’s why we need brilliant people to get involved in Swimathon 2020.

Alongside this, it’s also very important to us to support our pools and open water venues in these difficult times for the leisure industry. This has been a key part of our public message and we have also redirected our grant giving scheme this year to specifically support swimming organisations who have been adversely impacted by the pandemic. In total, the Swimathon Foundation were able to distribute £50,000 of grants to groups within the swimming community that were most in need.
How important is it for you to support the return of swimming - is there a greater focus on encouraging participation this year more than ever?

I think one of the key learnings from the pandemic is the need for people to stay fit and healthy. Swimming is a wonderful way of doing so – it’s low impact, accessible for all and a really good form of exercise for both physical and mental health.  

In fact, Swim England’s 'Value of Swimming' report highlighted the huge benefits of aquatic activity which saves the health and social care system more than £357 million pounds per year and swimming pools themselves generate £7.2 million of social value in community savings.

It’s clear that swimming has a huge impact on society and I hope that more people are inspired to get in the pool and reap the benefits themselves. Swimming may look a little different for a while but we know that there is a huge desire from people across the country to get back in the water.

How do you think the pandemic will change swimming, if at all?

It will definitely have an impact – already the way pools are operating has changed to allow for adequate social distancing and Covid-secure measures. Swims need to be pre-booked; pools have double width lanes and one-way systems and people are being encouraged to turn up ‘beach ready’, which means their swimmers are on under their clothes. 

I am passionate about people swimming and extremely concerned that we may lose a number of swimming pools as a result of COVID-19. Swim England predict that at least 10% of pools may never reopen due to lack of funding and resource. This is clearly very worrying for the millions of people who swim every year. 

However, we’re doing our utmost best to ensure as many people can take part in the Swimathon challenge this year. All swimmers will still be able to take part at a venue of their choosing and in their own time via the MySwimathon platform before the end of October. 

2,663 swims have already been recorded using the MySwimathon tracker, totalling 6,313km in distance and 1,651 people have already finished their challenge, which is fantastic to see.

Lots of recent surveys suggest the British public is getting more involved with exercise since lockdown, especially sports like running. Do you think swimming can capitalise on the boom?

I hope so! Swimming is a very unique form of physical activity – there’s no way to replicate it on land. For many swimmers, we’ve struggled during lockdown as there’s nothing quite like the weightless feeling of being in the water. I’ve spoken to a number of pools who have been overwhelmed with the positive response so far and for many facilities, they’ve been at capacity which is excellent to hear. 

We also have to remember that swimming is an essential life skill and for lots of children, they’ve been unable to practice over the last six months. We’ve seen huge take up of swimming lessons over the past few weeks, so I expect to see a huge number of youngsters returning to having fun in the water whilst learning a skill that may one day save their life.