A 16-year-old girl from Co Dublin who only took up open water swimming during lockdown was the youngest swimmer to complete this year’s Lake Windermere Swim in the UK.
Gabrielle Furlong, who was up against elite swimmers of all ages, completed the 18km one way swim on Saturday in eight hours and 17 minutes.
Windermere is the largest natural lake in England and is located in Cumbria’s Lake District National Park.
The fifth-year student, who lives in Killiney, only started open water swimming in 2020 as a hobby to improve her mental health.
Gabrielle said she received great guidance from her swimming coach Claire O’Dwyer who “never doubted me even when I doubted myself”.
“Everything I’ve done over the last two years all led up to this. At the start it was very surreal and then it sort of became like a rhythm, I kind of went into a daze at some points but it was gorgeous to just swim with the sunrise and then the sun went right over us, it was magical,” she said.
“I’ve never swam for that long, so it was something that I’ve never experienced and to experience Lake Windermere from the water is not something that many people get to do, so it was magical to be in that position.
“I took up open water swimming when my mental health was quite bad, I didn’t really have anything to do, I didn’t have a hobby. So, a swimming coach that I had when I was in primary school, took me down to the beach one day and she said, ‘just give it a go’ and that was during lockdown in 2020 and I’ve been swimming ever since.
“My mental health became so much better, I think having something to look forward to every day and having a goal that I’ve set for myself. And nowadays, everyone my age has a phone so just being away from my phone and having that time to myself.”
Gabrielle’s grandad Peter Walsh (69), who is originally from Bray, Co Wicklow, acted as her support kayaker for the duration of the race and was by her side every step of the way.
Mr Walsh took up kayaking in order to guide his granddaughter along the course. Gabrielle said it was a “very special” experience for them both and she even made sure her grandad received a medal for his efforts too.
“When I applied for the swim, there was an option to have a kayaker from the organisers but it’s someone you don’t know, and you only meet them on the day,” she said.
“So, we opted to have someone that I knew, and my grandad very kindly went ‘put my name down and I’ll start training’. So, ever since then we’ve been training together and definitely it has brought us a lot closer.
“There were so many people involved but it wouldn’t have been possible without him. He kept me going for the full 18km, so I was delighted.”
Gabrielle has now set her sights on swimming the English Channel next year, which ranges anywhere from 40km to 48km in distance.
“I hope to do that in 2023 but I was advised to do this swim as a steppingstone and just to ease myself into it but I’m so glad I did it.”