It can take a single event to completely change the course of your life. When Becca had a car accident in Slovenia, she dealt with the immediate injuries with no idea of the psychological effects and the journey to recovery that would follow.
Becca's incredible story takes us through her diagnosis of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to discovering ice swimming, falling in love, changing careers, training for an ice mile and becoming a hero of the big screen.
I've labelled myself as an outdoor swim professional just because I don't just guide people into the water as part of the job I do, I also do a lot of talks, hosting and writing. Whether it's film based or whether it's personal journey based, it’s all about water and swimming and I’m just trying to find work in the freelance world.
My mum and dad have plenty of photos of me, naked little Becca running around beaches refusing to wear swimwear. We always went down to Cornwall as family – my parents, me and my two brothers. I think there must have been a brief period where my parents felt a bit guilty because I've got pictures from when we were aged about ten or eleven wearing wetsuits for the first time. I think it only happened that one holiday and then it was back to swimwear as normal.
There's something about that British summer holiday – sandwiches on the beach that were full of sand, ice cream that was full of sand, which we ate huddling behind a windbreak because it was far too windy to be outside in swimwear. I always loved that element and I always loved being in water, and while I wasn’t necessarily swimming, I loved splashing my brothers or playing around or trying to surf or bodyboard and just messing about.
It's funny because when we were when we were filming Ice Mile, my dad was so adamant he wasn’t going to be filmed because he said he didn’t have any stories and didn’t want to be on camera. But then he came with this story about when I used to swim when I was younger. I used to go to swim club and compete a little bit. But while I was competitive, I refused to wear a swim hat or normal costume, I'd always wear my Minnie Mouse swimming costume. There’d be a gala on a weekend and my dad said he has this image of all these girls lining up and then there was me, stood in the middle in a Minnie Mouse swimming costume without a swim hat on. I'd still come third, but it was just that I was going to do it my way.
Was the lack of rules in outdoor swimming part of the appeal?
My initial introduction to outdoor swimming was from a mental health point of view. I was just diagnosed with PTSD and wanted to find something that would help me. It wasn't until later that I got into the community spirit of it because when I first started, I was a shell of a human. But through meeting other people, I started finding myself again. Then, through that community, I worked out that everyone else had mental health stuff too and there wasn’t any kind of rules. It was do whatever you want, wherever you want, get dressed in whatever order you feel necessary. I really liked that because it felt like that saying, ‘you do you’ applied right across the board.
Your story about how you ended up with PTSD is very powerful. Are you happy to share it?
Yes. My PTSD was first diagnosed three or so years after a car accident I had in Slovenia. It was pretty full-on. I dealt with the physical side of things, but then I started having flashbacks and I was getting really scared and overwhelmed and I didn’t really understand it. One day, when I went to see my physio, he put his hands on my neck and he told me that my whole body was freezing up. But I wasn't conscious of it. That's when I went to see my GP.
When I got diagnosed with PTSD, I thought I was going to get trauma therapy and that would be it. But you get given the diagnosis and then left feeling completely lost. I searched online, but because I didn't really know what to search for, I just looked on the NHS website wondering somebody with PTSD should be looking for. I tried to find comfort but without success. And then just serendipitously, I was watching a BBC documentary about alternative types of medicine to help people with mental illness. They'd got this GP swimming outdoors with a woman who wanted to get off medication for depression. And I watched it and just went, oh, that's what I could do. Because at that point, I was completely desperate.
I knew there was somewhere in Clevedon, which was local to where I was living. I got in contact with this lovely group called The Orcas at Clevedon Marine Lake and they invited me down. A woman called Clare took me under her wing and helped me express things that I didn't even really understand at that point. My first swim was with Clare and a woman called Karen. She was getting in for different reasons and I was getting in for PTSD and it was amazing. Up until that point, I had felt completely on my own with my diagnosis and then having somebody else conquering their own thing right next to me made me feel a bit less alone. So, that was it. As corny as it sounds, I had found my tribe.
You didn’t start in the summer like most people, did you?
No, that first swim was in January 2018 and the water was four degrees. The complete opposite of what you're told to do. Everybody shares the advice that you should start in the summer and ride the temperatures down. And that's what I should advise as a swim guide, but I'm a complete hypocrite. I do appreciate the safety element of that advice, but I was desperate.
What was it about the cold water that helped you so much?
I’d been working in Slovenia when I had my car accident, and then I was concussed for six months. Basically, my head hit my steering wheel before my airbag deployed. My surgeon said that my skull should have fractured to release the pressure. Whereas my skull didn't fracture so I had this build up of pressure and that caused nerve damage. I still have pain all the time apart from when I’m in the water.
When I first went to Clevedon, three years post-accident, I was getting back to working in TV production but before that, I’d been told to grieve the person I used to be, that I'd never amount to anything or work in a forward-facing role. So, I was still finding out a lot about myself that I didn't understand and I found that the water was somewhere I could just shut up my busy mind.
You’d not been winter swimming for long when you decided to do an ice mile. What led you to that decision?
It was Cath Pendleton's fault! So, I’d done half a winter season and then, in the winter 2018/19 season, I decided that I fancied doing the ice mile because I realised that I had this natural ability to stay in the cold for a little bit longer than most people. That was weird. Not everybody goes after distance, most people dip for their mind. Whereas for me, especially because I had this pain in my head, all I wanted to do was stay in the water for as long as possible because it numbed that pain.
Over this period of time, I moved to Wales and met an amazing woman call Keri on a beach. She had very similar goals as me. So, then it was like, I've got training partner. It just started clicking into place after that. That's when I met ice swimmer Cath Pendleton. One day, we were being silly and playing mermaids and because the water was so clear, we hardly realised that we'd been in for 40 minutes and this was February. We were shivering on the side, drinking hot chocolate and then we went to café for more hot chocolate. As we were huddled round the table, me and Keri were talking about how we’d quite like to an ice mile in maybe three- or four-years’ time, but Pendleton was like no, you can do this next year.
I felt like I was jumping the queue, if that makes sense. But we booked for the September the following year and then started training. I was training to improve my speed and get into a competitive mindset, so I went to the GB Ice Championships and the Scottish Winter Swimming Championships. And then, in February 2020, I went to the World Winter Swimming Championships in Bled in Slovenia.
Going to back to Slovenia was a really big deal. I was going to be returning to the scene of my car accident and I felt like I needed the ice mile to be able to get there. I had my first ice mile booked for January 2020 and the World Champs were in February, but the ice mile didn’t happen because the water didn’t get below five degrees. I decided to go anyway, which sounds mental now I say it out loud. Even my therapist, my neurologist, everybody, they were just like, that's a really bad idea. But, me finding the water was something I did on my own, so I thought that maybe this trip would help – another example of me not listening to anybody else.
Your return trip was life-changing in a very different way to what you expected. What happened?
You think that your life is going in a certain trajectory, right? And then you go to Slovenia and everything changes. I went back to the scene of the crime knowing that it was going to be traumatic but so much good came from it. Firstly, I got to know the South West Seals from Clevedon a lot better. Secondly, I shared a room with Gilly McArthur who is now an asset of everything I have in my arsenal. Thirdly, and the ultimate for me, was that I met my partner in Slovenia. I don't know what would have happened if I hadn't met him because everything changed, everything pivoted in a short amount of time.
Gilly and I had gone for a swim in Lake Bohinj, which is my favourite place. It was the last place where I was the old Becca and I was really trying to realign old Becca with new Becca, pre-crash with post-crash. The day before my car accident, I’d been at Lake Bohinj. So when I went there with Gilly in 2020, we had a swim and a chat and a cry. We were just sitting there when we heard giggling over the other side of the lake and I said to Gilly, I recognise those giggles. So, I got my camera out and zoomed in only to find out that they were all naked. But while I recognised that bum and that bum, there was one that I didn’t recognise and that turned out to belong to my Michael. We went to meet them, and I realised that all the South West Seals knew him – it was like he'd come with a seal of approval, quite literally. That night, we all went curling, which was great. After all the Seals had gone, it was just me and Michael drinking mulled wine at the side of an ice rink, watching the ice skaters. We hit off right away. He invited me to go and watch him race the next day. And as soon as I saw him in those tight Union Jack trunks, I was like, yeah, that's it, my own Magic Mike.
After Slovenia, he came to see me in Cardiff once I went to Sunderland once, and then Covid happened. In that first lockdown, I was at my parents' in Clevedon. But we were on the phone every night, having Zoom dates, baking cakes together. It was actually a wonderful way to get to know somebody and it also gave me something to look forward to at the end of every day. As soon as we could, we created a bubble together even though we were 400 miles apart. I went to stay with him and then I had to go to Cardiff for a job, and then he was like, when you come back up, do you want to just bring your stuff? I've been here since October 2020.
I've got this real sense that this is how life was supposed to be. Because, if I hadn't had a car accident in Slovenia, I wouldn't have returned and I wouldn't have got into outdoor swimming and I wouldn't have met Michael and moved to Sunderland. And if I hadn’t done all of that, I wouldn't be working with Fenwick at H2O Trails and I wouldn't be working in Scotland.
I don't think I can really put it into words how Michael helps. Just having somebody to share a life with and share a passion with amongst all of the rubbish, that's the ultimate. Part of my PTSD and the way I talk about myself is quite self-deprecating, and I never thought I'd find a partner. I always thought I was going to just have a couple of dogs. So, Michael’s the ultimate support and the ultimate companion. He's my safe space. He's my best mate. And he still surprises me. It’s the things he comes out with, like, I’m going to buy a dress and then I want to recreate Ophelia in a stream. He just makes life that extra bit enjoyable and full of adventures. And all the ridiculous challenges he puts himself through also spurred me on to be better. Without realising it, he inspires me.
Apart from Michael being your silver lining, how did the lockdowns affect you?
After Slovenia, I went to the Scottish champs, and then I was hoping to get a window to do my ice mile when Covid hit. It was a really abrupt ending. At that point, we were still hopeful for the next season, but Covid was still here and ice miles weren't happening. I felt like I’d been completely robbed. I was in the peak of my fitness at the end of 2020, and then to go into something as triggering as Covid lockdowns was a really hard time for me.
I’d been dealing with my car accident up until 2020, so for seven years. But when we went into lockdown, it turned into something else entirely and unravelled the fact that actually, I don't just have PTSD, I have complex PTSD from multiple traumas. In 2017, I was involved in a terror attack in Barcelona. Being locked in because of Covid brought back this sense of not being able to escape because during that that terror attack in Barcelona, I was locked in an art gallery until the early hours of morning. The thing about these sorts of events is that nobody really knows what's going on while it's happening. We didn't know that anyone had been caught, we didn't know who had died. All we were told was that there were gunmen on the loose. So, we'd got locked in this art gallery that I was supposed to be in anyway for an art class and the gallery owners were just like, we're just going to share all our booze, all our food as if this was our last night on Earth.
When Covid hit and we were all told to stay inside because it wasn’t safe, it triggered this whole new part of my brain that I hadn't really given any notice to. And there was no comfort. I didn't have a therapist on call, so the only thing I could do was eat. I was just comfort eating like anything to try and just stay alive, effectively. Through the whole of Covid, that became my coping mechanism. I think it had always been a coping mechanism to an extent, but it you just have to do what you have to do to stay alive.
During your Ice Milefilm screenings, people have commented on your body in an almost congratulatory way. How has that made you feel?
When we've done the ice mile screenings, I always get congratulated for my body and I find it really jarring. I feel like this body is a product of trauma because this is what I've done to survive. It hasn't been a choice. It hasn't been a conscious decision. So, whenever someone goes, you're representing the big girls. I'm thinking yes, but I'm not somebody to aspire to look like. It’s really hard because people hold me up as an example of body positivity, but even when I was at my fittest, I didn't love my body. I'm bigger than I was before so how can I love my body now?
But it's also that idea that size stops you from doing things. For me, it was this acceptance that this is how my body looks and I need to stop looking at it as a transitional body and just get on with it. That’s how the ice mile came about. I was so gunned on losing weight before we started filming, but it didn’t happen. Life happens and you can't put everything on hold just because of the size you are; you just need to carry on. For me, swimming is also fitness. If I don't swim, then I'm not looking after my body. I'm riddled with injury anyway, so swimming is a low impact sport that I can do. If I let things like the way I see my body stop me, then I'm stopping my fitness.
When I look at social media and see bigger people exercising in the gym, I just think about how they're feeling when they get congratulated for being there. It’s just them and you can't congratulate them for living. Like, you're effectively telling them that they shouldn't be there. There are some brilliant people working against all that who I really admire, like Steph who set up Every Body Outdoors. All these outdoor brands that never used to go up past a size 16 excluded people who were bigger than that, like they were saying, this is not a space for you. But Every Body Outdoors really held brands accountable. Steph should be congratulated for this and so many other things and yet, she's still the big girl who gets congratulated for walking up a hill. It just makes you think, we're big but we're more than just a body.
Despite all the challenges you faced, you completed your ice-mile. How did you find the strength?
That final season of training was really hard. It was the year we had loads of destructive storms in the North East and I couldn't get to the water very often. I didn't do much distance training that year. I was taken under the wing of cold water coach Fenwick Ridley and there were so many elements of him that helped me get through that, just the fact that it was a complete mental battle. I remember him saying, you know what? You don't have to push yourself every time you get in the water, take it as it comes, every swim you can’t be your best swim. And I think that was something I really needed to learn because I was still comparing myself to the swimmer I was pre-Covid. That comparison wasn't helpful and Fenwick helped train me out of that.
That's the thing about an ice mile. Everyone talks about the distance, but the mental capacity to keep going when you're in a lot of pain, that’s hard. But I feel as if I've almost got a superpower when it comes to that because I'm in pain all the time so I know how to control it.
By the time I actually stood on the side of the water for my ice mile, I didn't think it was real. I just couldn't believe it was happening after so much training and so many setbacks. I had done all I could do, but there was still this pressure. I had just driven up from a family event in Bournemouth to be there. I had a trauma medic, I had everybody on standby. I was like, it's this or nothing, but let's take all that out. Another thing that was really helpful for me is that I've always admired Shaun White, the snowboarder, his mindset and his passion for snowboarding. This feels like a tangent, but I’d seen his documentary about when he finally got snowboarding into the Winter Olympics. You only get three runs and for his first two, he didn't put a score down so, it all fell on his last run. And he said that at the start of that run he had to get rid of all of the pressure and just enjoy it. Because if you don't enjoy it, what's the point of even doing it? So, for me, that was it, I just had to let go of all that pressure.
I was really lucky with my ice mile. The air temperature was higher than the water temperature and it was sunny. I had sun beams coming through the water. It was a really strange swim because all of my safety was handed to other people and all I had to do was keep swimming. You feel like you almost don't want to check in with your body because if you do, then it's game over and you'll start thinking about how cold you're getting. So, you think no, it's their call, not mine.
My swim was just incredible for the first half and then the second half was really hard because also my swim hat fell off. There's a reason people wear swim hats. It felt like I had a freezer bag growing on my head the entire way. I had ultimate brain freeze. But I just tried to think of memories that keep me warm. There was some research around your body temperature in different emotional states. It found that if you're happy or joyful, then your body is warmer; if you're depressed or sad, then you're colder. I don’t know if it was placebo, but I decided that if I thought of happy things then I’d be warmer. And so I was thinking of Michael and how we met in Slovenia and how if I wasn't attempting to do this ice mile, I would never have met him. So, it all came full circle in that in that swim.
When you took part in D&B shoot, you were well acquainted with having a camera on you. How did it feel to be the subject of the film Ice Mile?
I felt like Covid gave us a really unique perspective of being able to show this huge uptake of outdoor swimming and I wanted to film that with a community, seasonal vibe. So, I approached a director, Rachel Sarah, with this idea and talked about following an ice miler through the seasons. But she didn't grasp this concept and thought I was talking about me. Then, when we got to the first shoot, the camera was on me and I was like, me? Really? Ok! Rachel didn't know any of this until I told her at the film’s premiere at Kendall Mountain Festival last year. I was so out of my comfort zone, but I was like, you know what, this is a yes moment and I'm just going to carry on.
It was very weird getting used to it. I almost had to put Rachel in my periphery of like, this isn't really happening. I wanted it to be authentic. I didn't want it to be like, hold on, I've got to fix my hair. This is how I am. This is how it is. And through that, it became how mine and Rachel's friendship was made. At times, it was very stressful. But it was great and now I've got a time capsule of one of the greatest achievements in my life. Every time I watch it at a screening, I see it through a new lens. I am developing as a swimmer and as a person. I've changed so much since the swimmer that you see at the end of that film.
What do you love about your D&B – can it compete with that Minnie Mouse swimsuit?
I'd wanted to get my hands on a D&B swimsuit for a while. I think the cut's great, and the ethics behind the brand, the sustainability. It's all the same values that really align with the type of swimmer that I am. So, when it came to the shoot, I was just like, yes please! And now they're my go-to suits. Like, they're the ones that are always hanging wet because they’re the ones that I always wear. I feel supported and yet covered, especially around the boob area. They hold my boobs in place even when I'm swimming. I feel like with other swimsuits, even if they've got a built-in bra, there is a bit of movement especially with front crawl rotation, but with D&B they just fit so well. I think they're the best costumes that I've put on my body.
Becca wears The X-Back Swimsuit in Scarlet and Cobalt in size 18 Hendricks
Did you enjoy reading this Body Story? Discover the other stories in our Making Waves series, and read about amazing women whose life-changing work inspires and moves others.
“I had a giant mermaid sculpture made of recycled plastic to highlight the plastic pandemic, and I swam the length of the River Thames as a mermaid. Then, one day, I rescued a drowning cow and my story made it into The Sun newspaper.” Read Lindsey’s story.
"It’s relentless how I continually got labelled growing up. I didn’t know if I was coming or going: I'm a child, I'm a woman, I'm fat, I’m too tall, I'm beautiful. It was totally bloody bonkers." Read Farrah's story.
“The ocean feels like such an inclusive space. I think that if you feel that connection to the sea, wherever you come from, whatever your interests are, you find that sense of belonging and of being held and supported by the sea.” Read Pippa’s story.
“I watch people and I have an obsession with how they're standing and how they're moving; it's probably just what I zero in on… I notice the way anatomy hangs together and the way people stand.” Read Nancy’s story.
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