Having learned to swim as an adult, Pritpal fell in love with outdoor swimming in her seventies. It quickly became her favourite form of exercise after running, hula hooping and skipping with her husband, whose nickname the ‘Skipping Sikh’ came from his lockdown fundraising efforts. In her Body Story, Pritpal talks about how important exercise is to her health and wellbeing, and her husband and daughter's role in supporting and encouraging her.
Tenacious and fearless, Pritpal hopes to encourage others to get moving and find the joy in exercise too – other women her age, others from her South Asian community and the children whom she and her husband visit in school to teach skipping and hula-hooping.
Do you remember being conscious of the way you looked when you were younger?
When I was younger, I was naturally about a size six or eight. When I met my husband I was so skinny I had to put some weight on. Then I had Minreet and I put too much weight on.
I think now I manage to keep myself to around a size ten. It’s all about eating healthily and doing exercise. To me, if I didn't do my exercise, I’d feel like a cabbage. Any exercise I do, I must do in the morning. You feel fresher. You have more energy, so it’s very important to be able to start a day off with exercising.
I guess it's more about looking after your health and feeling good. I want to keep away from the hospitals; I don't want to go into hospital if I can help it. I just want to keep on exercising, eating healthily and hoping for the best.
What inspired you to try outdoor swimming in your seventies?
I have to explore different things. It’s something I have done all my life, you know? I wanted to try swimming outdoors, so, as I’m not able to go by myself, whenever I wanted to go, Minreet would take me. It was my idea to try outdoor swimming, but it was thanks to her that she found a place for us to start.
The first place we went to was Denham. I really enjoyed myself there, so we went to Canary Wharf. I just think it’s really nice being in the outdoors because you hear the birds singing and you can see the blue sky, and the water’s really cold. It’s just different and you feel good afterwards.
Have you enjoyed swimming all your life?
I started swimming when my daughter was four or five years old and we used to take her to the local leisure centre. All the parents were in the water and my husband said, why don’t you learn to swim as well? But I didn’t want to know! He said, you can just put on some armbands and do doggy paddle – I'll teach you.
So, while Minreet was swimming there, he was the one who encouraged me to swim and from there I learned I lot. And since then, I have loved swimming. I always swam with my daughter, which was fine when she was young, but when she left school, she didn’t want to go swimming anymore. It was me encouraging her. She started coming with me, and more recently she became a swimming teacher.
Then I saw people swimming outdoors on TV. So, I suggested it to Minreet and she looked into it and took me to Denham. That was the first time, but we're going to do it more now. It’s fantastic. I love it. Because I’m getting older, I feel like I want to do everything that I can do. Life is short, and you want to do everything. I even want to do a bungee jump!
Over lockdown, you started hula-hooping as well. Can you tell us a bit about that?
What happened was that my daughter had a hula hoop from her time doing gymnastics when she was about five or six years old. We had it in the house, and then a couple of years ago, she starting using it when she was watching TV. I was watching her and thinking, oh, I wish I could do this as well. So, I tried, but it just kept falling down.
But I didn’t want to give up. I wanted to learn to hula hoop, and I said to myself, if Minreet can, I can do it too. And then I remembered that there were hula hoops at my gym which were slightly heavier than the one we had at home. When I tried the heavier one, I could do a little bit. Then I got another one that was even heavier, and it was even easier.
So, since then, I have found that it’s a very good work out with the hula hoop. Your whole body is moving. My message to other people is, you can do hula hooping anywhere – in your living room, for example, while you watching TV. So, you can do exercise while you’re doing something else.
Plus, me and my husband go into schools now to teach skipping and hula hooping. And the kids love that. They come up to me and say, Miss, my hula hoop’s just falling down and I say, don’t worry, you just have to practise. And I show them how to do it, and they say, Miss, I’ve got it now! They’re so happy about it. It’s really good.
I really enjoy hula hooping and I really enjoy my swimming. I enjoy swimming the most, though. I just love the water, especially outdoors. When you go in the water, it feels cold and lovely. I find it very relaxing as well – having more time to stay there and just keep swimming. I prefer the cold water to the indoor pool, so I’m hoping that when she’s a bit more free, Minreet can take me somewhere. And, one day, I'm hoping to go and swim in the sea as well. That is my dream, anyway.
What do your friends and family think of your swimming?
My daughter posts it on social media, so people say, we saw you were doing this, how do you do all these things? None of my friends can do any of the things I'm doing at the moment. Would you believe that? So, it makes me feel very happy when I inspire other people and that they’re saying, oh my gosh, if she can do that what can we do as well?
It doesn't matter what age you are; some form exercise is better for you than not doing anything at all. A lot of my friends say to me, you've got beautiful figure, I wish I looked like you, but they don't want to do any exercise at all. They keep asking me to show them how to hula hoop, but they don’t make the time for it. I think you've got to make time for exercise. You really have to. With me, I leave my housework. It's more important to me to exercise, you know? To do what you can do. Exercise is very important to me.
So, what do you think are the barriers that stop your friends from exercising?
I think lots of women have very busy lives, especially if they have children. And lots of us love eating food which isn't always good for us. Most Asian women love making Asian food, which can be quite greasy and unhealthy – especially sweet things and fried food. I used to love it too, but then I realised how rubbish it makes me feel and I didn’t want to eat it so much anymore.
What I’ve noticed with my friends is that the majority of them come home from work and cook for their families. Most of the Asian men expect the woman to come home from work, come in and cook the food and look after the kids as well. But my husband was the opposite. It made me an independent person, really, I don’t have to cook for him at all – he’s quite happy doing things for himself. If you’re lucky and get a good husband, you can do 50% of the work and you can both make time to go to the gym together or go swimming together.
In a couple of weeks, I’ve got the half marathon. That's going to be hard. I’ve done 10K. Oh my god, I’m just going to do it. Whatever happens, I’m going to do it. And I’m hoping to do the London Marathon next year in April.
What advice would you give someone who’s thinking about swimming outdoors and is nervous about doing it?
Don't be nervous. Have someone there to guide you and look after you, and you’ll be fine. You must never be afraid. As long as there is someone there saying, come on, you can do it – then you can do it! What's the point in being afraid?
I never feel afraid at all. I just go in. I remember when we went to Canary Wharf, Minreet said, I’m not going in there, you go in there. She pushed me in first, and then she was going, oh Mum, how is it? And I said, it’s lovely. Then she came in. She always does that! She is a lovely girl – without her, I wouldn’t be where I am now. She’s so caring, God bless her.
Pritpal wears the X-Back Swimsuit in Cobalt and Swim Crop Bikini in Beach Meadow in size 10 Hepburn
Read other Body Stories in our Diversity Outdoors series:
"I became really body conscious, but it wasn't because of my perception of my body – it was definitely because of the way others perceived my body." Kelly's Body Story
"I think that a lot of women are not really comfortable swimming at all. It's a difficult skill and there's a lot of fear of drowning. So, to then go into outdoor water where there's not really the stability that comes from being in a swimming where there’s a shallow end and a deep end, that fear is even greater." Minreet's Body Story
"I think you've got to make time for exercise. You really have to. With me, I leave my housework. It's more important to me to exercise, you know?" Pritpal's Body Story