How to Cope with Not completing a swim and what it takes to go back

You have trained for years, sacrificed a social life, family time and endured pure exhaustion in your journey to complete your open water swim but then it all falls apart at the final hurdle. This is never what we as open water swimmers want to happen but in our sport, no outcome is ever set in stone. Extreme weather, marine life, hypothermia and pure exhaustion can creep up when you least expect it and obliterate years of planning. As open water swimmers we call these soul destroying experiences “unsuccessful” swims instead of “failed” swims but it does not change the fact that the final outcome was the complete opposite of what we wanted. Not making a swim is never pleasant and is often followed by a feeling of emptiness. A lot of people will be happy to have at least tried the challenge and the experience alone is what they needed but what about those of us that can not accept the outcome and yearn to return to swim another day? Here we will go through exactly what it takes to reframe your previous experiences and how to return to complete your unfinished business.

Acceptance – Come to terms with the unsuccessful attempt

The first step to moving forward on your journey is to fully accept and come to terms with the experience of the unsuccessful attempt. It can be a little traumatising to say the least and the bad memories can stay with you for many months afterwards but as soon as you accept the situation for what it is and more importantly commit yourself to try again, you are already over the biggest metal hurdle. Every great journey starts with an idea, a single thought and once that idea takes it roots you are in a position to move forward and put in the necessary work to make it happen.

One of the key ways to accept the experience of the unsuccessful swim is to focus on the facts that stopped you and not the “What If’s?” You may be plagued with thoughts like “What if I swam a bit faster?” or “What if I had a different day?” but these thoughts are simply drawing you into a negative spiral of stress. Accept the true reasons for failure, which often will be down to circumstances beyond your control. When you understand this you will feel so much more at peace and be ready to move forward. At the same time you must take responsibility for anything within your preparation or approach that contributed to your lack of success (for example, not enough acclimatisation, poor nutrition planning, started too fast etc.) and ensure you have a plan to address these short-comings in future.

Develop Resiliance – Accept that failure is an option again

As Captain Matthew Webb (The first person to swim Solo across the English Channel) once said “Nothing great is easy”. If your challenge were easy then anyone could do it! All great challenges will be difficult. If they were not difficult and there was not that chance of failure then they would not be very good challenges in the first place. You have chosen to revisit a massive personal challenge so now you need to develop resilience. Accept that failure is of course an option again but you will stay strong and keep at it as long as it takes to achieve your goal. Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly. – Robert Kennedy.

Book and pay for everything so you are committed

You have had the idea to try again, now you need to commit yourself and turn that idea into a reality. The first step to properly cement this is to plan, book and pay for your whole expedition again. It is easy to put this off for months as it can be a painful reminder of the pervious attempt but treat it as ripping off a plaster by doing it in quickly and in one go. It will probably be even easier than the first time as you will already have the contacts and experience. Lets not kid ourselves that these expeditions are cheap though. You will need to have the funds available to take this step so if you do not, you can at least get the planning process rolling and pay your deposits for boats, accommodation, etc to secure your booking. The important step is that you take definitive and positive action to committing yourself entirely to trying again.

Work your ass off to train up again

Now for the hard bit, the training all over again to get back to peak condition. The physical element of this may not be as tricky as it sounds assuming you have not had months and months off training since the last attempt. You will already be pretty highly tuned so keep ticking over at a manageable rate ready to ramp up the training in the final months just like you did before. You are already over the super hard bit which is re-committing yourself mentally. The physical training is of course vital to success but being in the right place mentally is king here. As Alison Streeter MBE (Queen of the Channel) once said “Channel swimming is 80% mental, 20% the rest. “ Don’t let the training scare you off. Embrace it, stay positive and enjoy the journey.

Treat it as a brand new challenge.

Take learnings from your previous attempt if there are any to be had but do not take the negative feelings and doubts with you. Leave all of that in the past and treat the next attempt as a brand new challenge. You already know the swim so have a massive advantage already however no two days in open water swimming are ever the same so be prepared for a whole new set of obstacles to overcome.

Develop a “Challenge State” rather than a “threat State”

If you had a really bad experience last time then you will at some point experience the next attempt as a threat during your preparation. This will cause stress, anxiety and will be no fun at all. The key here is to treat it as a challenge. Challenges are supposed to be fun so don’t forget why you are here, to do something amazing in your unique journey of personal development. Do not lose sight of this and embrace the whole challenge for what it is – an amazing and often life changing journey of self discovery.


In closing remember that just because your previous swim did not yield the desired outcome, it does not mean your journey is over. It means that you are still on that journey but it will just take a little longer to get your destination that what you first thought.