This year's ‘Every Body Swim' campaign focuses on the inclusivity of swimming and how everyone can enjoy the feeling of freedom that the water gives us, which is why we're excited to welcome Gill Castle as a guest speaker and swimmer at this year's Arla Great North Swim. 

Gill Castle, 44 of Alnwick is the first person with a stoma to swim the English Channel and has an incredibly inspiring story that we know will encourage more people, from all backgrounds and different abilities, to take up swimming. 

Gill said: “I'm really looking forward to taking part in the Arla Great North Swim this June. “Last year I became the first person in the world to swim the English Channel solo with a stoma.  

“The open water swimming community has always been extremely welcoming to me since I started my journey into the open water six years ago.  

“It's been quite a journey from a huge fear of the open water to swimming the English Channel, and I'm looking forward to sharing my journey when I'm talking on the SwimFest stage on Saturday, 8 June, and swimming alongside some of you in the 2-mile swim also.” 

Gill will be swimming the 2-mile swim at the Arla Great North Swim on Sunday, 9 June. We caught up with Gill to find out about living and swimming with a stoma, her motivations, and experience swimming the English Channel: 

What appeals to you about the Great North Swim and what are you looking forward to? 
The Great North Swim appeals to me for its friendly, down to earth approach to encouraging anyone, and everyone to take part. There are so many different events, suitable for children up to adults trying out their first event, to experienced open water swimmers.  

What distance are you swimming – 2 mile on Sunday – do you swim this distance regularly is this distance comfortable and part of your regular routine? 
I have only just started ‘proper' outdoor swimming again this year in the last week or so because the water has been very cold in Northumberland up until now. However, I regularly swim 2-3k in the pool 2-3 times per week throughout winter, supplemented with cold water dipping with friends in the sea. I'm hoping to swap all my indoor swimming back to outdoor swimming for the rest of the open water season – bring on a summer of sunny swims!

You swam across the English Channel, how was that - how long did it take, any insights into that experience you want to share? Mental preparation, going into the unknown and any fears? 
I swam the Channel solo on 12 September 2023 in 13hrs 53 mins. I think people are almost disappointed to learn that I found the swim itself much easier than the almost 3 years of training it took me to get to the starting line! I had only swum a mile in the open water in 2020 when I spontaneously decided I'd swim the Channel, I was terrified of swimming in the dark, in open water on my own next to a boat, and didn't really understand the enormity of the challenge I had set myself. I had to completely change my stroke, from a faster triathlon stroke, to endurance swimming stroke, learn how to feed while swimming, but first I had to overcome a serious rotator cuff injury which had taken me out of the water for 18 months. I had 8 months of twice daily intense physio before I was able to step foot back in the water in May 2021.  

Part of the challenge of endurance swimming, is that it is uniquely lonely – you spend an inordinate amount of time with just your own thoughts to occupy you, and so I had to learn how to swim for up to 5 hours in the pool, and up to 6 hours in the sea, without getting bored. I learned to focus on visualising my landing in France, repeating positive mantras constantly, and knocking any negative thoughts of my brain before they could take hold.  

I reminded myself why I was swimming – to raise awareness of the thousands of women injured in childbirth every year, and to encourage people with stomas to get back swimming. I was also raising vital funds for my charity, Chameleon Buddies, which I set up in 2022 to support women and girls in Kenya who are struggling after childbirth or stoma surgery. I raised £50,000 for my charity from my swim!

Tell us about living with a stoma? Any advice for anyone considering taking up swimming/open water swimming?  

Having a stoma is very difficult to get used to, particularly if they are fitted in an emergency without any warning, like mine was. You have to learn how to change your stoma bag, which foods you can tolerate as your stoma may react to certain foods, and it can be a lonely place to be if there is no-one to share this experience with. However, once you have got used to your stoma, and found the right stoma bag for you which doesn't leak, there is no reason why, with adaptions, you can't do exactly what you did before. My message is that you do not have to live your life around your stoma, but your stoma must live around you.  

People are often very fearful about going swimming with a stoma as they think the bag will leak, or people will judge them for getting in the water with a stoma bag on. You most definitely can swim with a stoma, in lakes, the sea, pools – any form of water at all! Get your swimming costume on and don't look back.

How does swimming the channel compare to any other challenges you've done? What is the hardest thing about swimming the channel? How did you celebrate after? 

Nothing can be harder than the years after I had my baby, but in terms of charity challenges I have done, the Channel is far and away the hardest thing I have done in my life. I had to face my very real terror of night swimming, I had to overcome a lot of self-doubt and feelings of being an imposter in the endurance swimming community – as I had done no endurance swimming at all when I registered to swim the Channel. I was swimming over 20k a week, sacrificing family time, birthday celebrations, holidays while fitting in gym work, yoga and regular sports massages. It was very stressful and intense. But I also met some of the most amazing people along the way, my crew and friends made during swim camps and I had a lot of laughter too.  

The swim itself was magical, the single most amazing experience of my life and one I'll never forget. I celebrated with a pepperoni pizza before making my debut on the BBC Breakfast sofa! 

Tell us a bit about what you've been up to lately? i.e. speaking at Birth Trauma inquest etc. 

After the swim, I was asked by Theo Clarke MP to become a member of the Special Advisory Group for the first ever APPG into Birth Trauma, which launched the first national inquiry in January this year. More than 1,300 mothers and medical professionals responded to the call for submissions, with the Birth Trauma Report released on Monday 13th May. I was honoured to be asked to give a speech in Westminster at the launch on behalf of traumatised and injured mothers.  

How does open water swimming make you feel? 

I love the freedom and peace being in the open water provides. There are no queues in the sea, no lane hoggers, no whistles or alarms, no phones, no emails pinging. No swim is ever the same, conditions are always different, and there are so many ways to enjoy swimming. You can either have a fun, friendly dip while chatting, or put your head down and really go for a heart pumper. I love the feel of the air on my face, being amongst nature and best of all, it is free! One of my favourite things to do is lie on my back with my eyes closed, being gently rocked by the waves as I listen to seabirds calling – even better if there is warm sun on my face!

How has open water swimming inspired you/improved your daily life? 

I love the camaraderie of the open water swimming community. I have always found it such an encouraging and supportive space, where everyone's achievements, no matter how big or small, are celebrated. Overcoming my fear of the sea (I'm getting there with my fear of lakes….!) has given me so much confidence and has opened up a whole new watery world which I was unable to take part in previously. If I'm having a bad day, stepping into the water, whether warm or cold, is guaranteed to relax me and provide some quiet time to myself.

Tell us about your charity and what you've been doing to fundraise? 

My charity is called Chameleon Buddies, so named because I believe people are like Chameleons as we can adapt to changes in our circumstances, no matter what they may be. We buddy up, or support, women and girls in Kenya to adapt to changes in their life following childbirth or stoma surgery. I set it up in 2022 after learning that the Kenyans did not have access to stoma equipment and were using items like pieces of cloth or plastic bags in place of stoma bags. We run peer support groups, as well as providing stoma equipment, and in November last year we took a stoma nurse to the hospital for clinical examinations.  

This year we are returning, with two stoma nurses and a bladder nurse specialist. Next year, we are climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with 19 women, 10 of whom have stomas, 4 others with traumatic birth history, to raise money to build a new stoma wing at the Gynocare and Fistula Hospital in Eldoret, Kenya. The BBC accompanied us on our last visit in November, producing The Stoma Swimmer documentary which is still available on BBC iPlayer.

Are you undertaking any training for the Great North Swim? 

I have been swimming throughout winter up to 3 times per week, mainly with the Alnwick triathlon club, while also dipping in the sea whenever conditions permit. After the hectic 3 years of all consuming Channel training, I don't find it as difficult to manage my swims these days. My son is more independent, and my husband is a great help when he is home from working off-shore. I always make sure I have time to myself to something for me – which happens to be swimming!

The Arla Great North Swim is back on 7-9 June 2024. Choose from six different open water swimming distances to suit all ages, abilities, and level of experience. Whether you're looking to get fit, improve your time, soak up some nature or raise money for charity, you‘ll be part of an amazing collective experience - guaranteed. Dive into nature and join us at the UK's biggest open water swimming event. So, what do you say - see you on the shore? Find out more here