This Girl Can: How swimming helps with my mental health

Gill Dando from Durham appeared in the This Girl Can campaign, sharing her a passion for outdoor swimming.

This Girl Can

I am now the ripe age of 40 (how did that happen) but I stopped ‘growing up’ at about 23 I reckon.

I came from a pretty average background born in the late 70s. We lived up in the far North East for which I’m blessed. It is so beautiful and its relatively low population makes it feel like heaven (spoiler alert: now everyone will go there).

I was born in Newcastle Upon Tyne, I am a bonafide Geordie. Most of my life was spent in the rural Scottish/English borders living just over the border in Coldstream. I went to school mostly south of the border in Berwick Upon Tweed. 

Love of the great outdoors

I spent most of my spare time and leisure time outdoors.

My dad trained dogs semi-professionally so I was always out walking. I also rode ponies for people (we couldn’t afford one) and riding schools all over the borders.

I was lucky enough to get my own pony, Maddy, when I was about 13 and she was my life.

We would often take a short trailer ride down to the beach and have a swim in the sea around Holy Island and Lindisfarne or upon the long and empty sandy beaches of Goswick and places like that.

So I guess that’s was my first real dip into sea swimming. We would take the saddles off, strip our jobs off and ride in bareback until the horses started to swim.

They sit quite low in the water so you really felt like you were in there doing it.

Sport at school

I absolutely detested sport at school. Mainly because I was completely rubbish at it, but perhaps because the school I was at was full of high achievers in the sports world so they tended to get focused on.

We used to be the ones hiding in the bush halfway round the cross country then splashing muddy water on our faces from a puddle and going over the line last, feigning exhaustion.

At school, I always felt embarrassed and ashamed as I was always a bit chubby and short. I always say I’m too short for my weight, that’s the problem.

I hated team games as I knew I was awful and people wouldn’t pass to me for that reason. Every now and then you’d get the sympathy pass in hockey and either miss it completely or hit it so pathetically it made me want to run away and do triple maths instead. 

As for uni, sport? What is that again?

Rediscovering sport

I started to get back into fitness realistically in about 2007. It was when I moved back to the North East after travelling around the country for work and piling on the weight.

I’d tried all the diets and none worked and I would just yoyo back, worse than I started.

I decided to use ‘My Fitness Pal’ as my boss at work had done well with something similar.

My lodger at the time asked me if I wanted to go to the pub as per usual and I said no, let’s go rock climbing!

So we did, and it went from there really. We did loads of random sports and activities together including climbing, hiking, mountain biking and, amongst that, a smattering of wild swimming as and when we came across water.

When I started running I got really hooked until I got injured. So I started mountain biking then downhill racing then injured myself again so guess what? I went back to swimming.

Although I can’t really run now due to the old injuries, I still like to mix it up and do a bit of all sorts.

I can still swim and bike and hike. I love doing stuff outside rather than inside as it feels freer and it’s also relatively cheap and easy to do – plus it’s portable and my job has me travelling a lot.

This Girl Can

I was swimming at Roker one Sunday with our swim group Fausto’s Bathers of Fausto’s Cafe and I saw a girl filming and lots of stuff going on.

The girl was just packing up when my friends said that I should go over as she was doing some film tests and that sounds like you.

They wanted an outdoor swimmer that was ‘a normal girl off the street’ but with exciting attitude, and I guess a bit of spark and passion for the sport.

So I did it, and as Jo was asking me the questions I just felt myself relax and melt into the answers. Swimming to me is so evocative of emotion and feeling that it just flows.

Fit got real

It was amazing fun filming, I was pretty nervous as it was down south in strange water with a fancy film crew.

We filmed a load of pieces and it was all being relayed back to Georgie, the director in London, as they were editing it on the same day.

So last minute, so me.

I think to be fair it probably gave it an even edgier feel as I knew I just had to crack on.

It was strange getting in the water, firstly because the beach was pebble and it killed my feet, but mainly because the sea felt warm, not like my super cold northern sea.

When I saw the advert I cried, it was so so soooooo inspirational and the other women were amazing.

I know I’m in only for a few short seconds but I’m still super proud. Not many people get to say they were filmed and on TV doing a belly flop.

I’ve had so much love for the advert. I’ve had people texting me from Spice Girls concerts saying they’ve just seen me up on the big screen (‘girl power’) and that I’ve inspired them to get up and do something.

Inspiring my family

I have two lovely cousins Phoebe and Coral, who I am very close to plus my gorgeous little niece Lillie. I want them to grow up with a super cool aunty they can look at and be inspired by, but also see that it’s OK to just be who you are.

It doesn’t matter what size you are or what you look like, it’s what you do that matters. And it’s great to feel the freedom when you let go of what society might want you to be or think like.

How sport has helped me

It’s made me more body confident and self-assured and got me out and about to places I wouldn’t go.

I have experienced things that I wouldn’t have experienced and met some of the most wonderful people and friends from which opportunities and pathways in life have evolved that wouldn’t have otherwise.

I feel healthier and it’s also made me eat better as I feel all this work doing my exercise is spoiled if I don’t so. 

In the past, I suffered a lot with anxiety, depression and PTSD and the swimming helps my mental health no end.

It is definitely my new happy place. It’s so serene and so levelling, you feel so small and just part of the world again so everything else just melts away and you feel super calm: it’s lush.

Find your passion

As much as social media can put pressure on you to feel and look a certain way, it is also a really good way to meet new people and find out about things.

I’d say decide what you want to do and look up some groups in your area on Facebook and send them a message. I did that with swimming and it took me ages to actually pluck up the courage to go. I actually sat in my car about to drive away but forced myself to go in.

It was great and everyone was super supportive and welcoming and I loved it, so don’t feel afraid.

Remember everyone has been you at some stage. Everyone has had a first time and messed up or felt stupid so they know how you feel and they will look after you.

If you don’t like it, don’t go again, easy as that – no harm done. At least you know and you can go research and find something else.

Just please don’t go wild swimming on your own. It is safe when you know what you are doing, or are with an experienced group, but I wouldn’t advise going solo first time as there are all sorts of things you need to look out for and a proper group will know that.

Join and watch the feeds for a while to see if they’re your kind of crowd and if they sound legit.

Advice to my younger self

Hmm, tricky…. to be honest I wouldn’t want to change too much as (I know it sounds corny) you learn from your mistakes and you need some shade to appreciate the light right?

But what I would say is don’t try so hard to fit in, you don’t have to be the ‘cool girl’.

It’s OK to be vulnerable and show some emotion.

You are strong and you always will be but you have to let people in to the real you too. You’re a good person and people will love you for being you, not a version of you.

Read more: How sport helped me with my self confidence

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