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11th October 2017

Ellery McGowan, 71

Ellery has won multiple world championships in open water, marathon and winter swimming. She is also head of swimming and waterpolo at Charterhouse school. Bolder photographed Ellery at Guildford Lido.

“I grew up on a farm in Tasmania and from about the age of five, my twin sister and I used to go to the beach on our own. Nobody came with us, so we pretty much taught ourselves to swim. I think we were probably the first people in the country to get nylon racing swimsuits, which made us very proud. After the ’56 Olympics I kept a scrapbook with all the details of the athletes and swimmers involved. We even made lane ropes out of twine for the dam in our garden.

Perhaps it’s that background that made me prefer open water swimming to indoor competitions. It might be cold, but you feel so good afterwards. At the World Cold Water Championships in Russia last year, I cut my arms from swimming through ice – but I didn’t even realize the blood until it was over. It’s hard to explain how good the water makes you feel – you come out and you glow because all the heat has gone to your core. Even here in the lido, you might look at the grey sky and find it uninspiring, but after a few kilometres, you always feel better.

Teaching is rewarding, too. I think participating and actually going out and doing something yourself makes a difference to the pupils I teach. Rather than just saying ‘do this, do that,’ I’m showing them by example. I have quite good self-motivation. As well as teaching, I do pilates and spin classes every week. I also do a core strength class every Thursday, followed by gyrotonics after that. That’s my indulgence because it keeps my joints mobile. I eat quite healthily and I keep saying I am not going to drink every day of the week, but I generally always have a glass of red wine.

I’ve left dating to serendipity, but I think I might have to try online dating.

I’ve been separated now for about ten years, and I’ve left dating to serendipity, but I think I might have to try online dating. It does worry me, though, I need someone to vet everyone for me. I enjoy male company, but a lot of men are quite controlling and I think they get envious of strong women. It might be what attracts them in the first place, but then they seem to struggle with it. I’ve always been an independent person. When my marriage broke up, I found I got my personality back again. I was me and I wasn’t answering to somebody all the time.

It’s important not to put things off. I still have a lot of living to do.

I think about death a lot more since my son James died unexpectedly last year, aged 34. I’m not afraid of it at all because I believe in the afterlife, but some days I think. “I wouldn’t like to die just yet.” But if my number’s up, my number’s up. I have no regrets. James packed so much into his life – and I think I do too. He and I were very similar. It’s made me even more aware that it’s important not to put things off. I still have a lot of living to do. Antarctica is still on my list for a swim and I’ve already signed up for Robben Island next year.

My life motto? Look for challenges and live in the moment.

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