Strontian wild swimmer Laura wants more to take the plunge

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Our local correspondent on the peninsula, Nic Goddard, meets up with Strontian-based wild swimming guru Laura McConnachie to find out what is involved.

Living in this area means that the recent heatwave is something of a shock.

A classic Scottish summer is far more likely to involve drizzle and midges than record-breaking temperatures.

It also means that the lochs and sea look even more inviting than usual. Kayaks, canoes and sailing have long been watersports associated with this region but there is an increasing interest in donning a wetsuit -or not – for a rather more immersive pursuit.

Open water or wild swimming is a leisure activity which increasing numbers of people are getting into for a variety of health reasons – physical and mental and a reconnection to the natural world.

Here in Lochaber we are blessed with more options than most for freshwater, saltwater, rivers, lochs and seas to take a dip, but it can be a daunting prospect for the first time wild swimmer.

Laura McConnachie is a qualified personal trainer, mountain bike leader and open water swimming coach based in Strontian who has helped countless clients take the plunge.

Laura McConnachie dives into the loch for another open water swimming session. Picture: Nic Goddard. NO F31 open water swimmer 04
Laura McConnachie dives into the loch for another open water swimming session. Photograph: Nic Goddard.

Laura runs Tone Zone fitness and Swim Highlands. I met Laura at her home gym where she offers a full range of tailor-made exercise classes.

Surrounded by a cross trainer, exercise bike and treadmill with boxercise gloves hanging behind me, I perched on a weight bench and chatted with Laura who told me: ‘I worked at the swimming pool in Fort William for years as a supervisor and fitness instructor, but now I work from home here in Strontian.

‘I combine my passion for getting people active and outside enjoying this beautiful area and spend plenty of time with my family’.

Open water swimming in the sea. lochs and rivers is gaining in popularity in Lochaber. Picture: Nic Goddard. NO F31 openw ater swimmer 03
Open water swimming in the sea. lochs and rivers is gaining in popularity in Lochaber. Photograph: Nic Goddard.

Laura moved her family here 12 years ago and built a house next door to her sister on family-owned land.

‘Open water swimming is so much more than just exercise. You are out in nature, seeing wildlife, watching the seasons change and all sorts of weather,’ Laura tells me, adding: ‘I often go in after work of an evening and swim in the loch in the dark.’

Laura offers one-to-one sessions for absolute beginners or people wanting to improve their stroke, or make the transition from swimming in a swimsuit in an indoor pool to wearing a wetsuit and getting out of their depth or learning about tides.

She also offers group sessions and guided swims for people wanting to explore the area from a whole different perspective.

‘No two clients are the same. I’ve helped people who have never stepped foot in a pool and had them swimming a mile. I work with every person as an individual and learn to read their faces and their body language to see how best to help them.

‘Some people are scared of being out of their depth, or find they don’t like the seaweed brushing their legs, or that they get too cold.’

Laura herself swims year round telling me she was out there in the ice last winter. She participates in the events run by Highland Open Water Swim and helps others prepare for both competitions and just taking part.

Laura McConnachie is a qualified personal trainer, mountain bike leader and open water swimming coach based in Strontian. Picture: Nic Goddard. NO F31 open water swimmer 05
Laura McConnachie is a qualified personal trainer, mountain bike leader and open water swimming coach based in Strontian. Photograph: Nic Goddard.

Laura’s tales of gorge walking, exploring the cliffs and islands on Loch Sunart and swimming the ferry crossings from Ardgour to Corran and from Lochaline to Fishnish had me pondering the cost of a wetsuit for myself.

Laura was quick to assure me there was no need as she also rents out all the kit for you to have a try first and see if it is for you.

Highland Open Water Swimming has a year-round programme of swims and if you want some help to get started Laura offers kit hire, taster sessions and one-off or ongoing coaching.

Laura told me: ‘I am so lucky. Fitness is my life and my passion, and I love spreading the joy of being active and getting outside in this beautiful place and enjoying it. I’ve found my niche in such rewarding work.’