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WTC's interview with Tom Kean, co-founder of the Henley Swim

  The Henley Swim


Which Training Camp recently met up with Tom Kean, co-founder of the Henley Swim, at his offices in Henley-on-Thames where he is Managing Director of Thameside Financial Planning.


Which Training Camp – How did the Henley swim start?

Tom Kean – Jeremy (Laming, also co-founder of the Henley Swim) was competing in triathlon at the time but was struggling with his swims. I’d been a National level swimmer and as we were friends he asked me for some help. It was summer 2004 and the booms were up along the stretch of river at Henley for the rowing regatta.

It seemed a perfect opportunity but we needed to get the swim done before the rowing boats came out for their pre-race sessions. This meant doing the swim between 4:30am and 6:30am.


WTC – How did you get more swimmers the following year?

TK – We’d asked Andy Thomas, a friend and keen photographer, to come and take pictures of us in 2004. Jeremy and I couldn’t stop telling people about that first swim, we were so excited about it. We sent everyone pictures via the web. The following year we had about 10 swimmers turn up and then in 2006 about 30 swam the course.


WTC – How did you get from those early years to where you are now?

TK – It took 4-5 years before it became a small business. We wanted to create something special, something with heritage and we both have passion for the event and for the sport.

This year Jeremy gave up his secure job and has become a full time employee of Henley Swim. He can now focus 100% of his time building the event.


WTC – What events do you run?

TK – We have three main events.


It all started with the Classic, which follows the same course as our first swim in 2004. This is run at the end of June.

The race goes off at 4:30am. Before that there is a torch led procession down the bank to the starting area. We wanted to create a buzz, the atmosphere is electric and everyone congregates behind the torch and then you get an amazing snake of people going down the river. If there’s fog, the fog clears as if just for us. And that’s fantastic, and we know we’ve got everyone there for the safety briefing. It was our way of taking something that some people may have thought was a chore, but making it fun and exciting.

Two weeks after the Classic, in mid July, we have The Mile. This event is run during the day and there are lots of different events under The Mile umbrella; shorter events for kids, sprints along the island (Temple Island, an iconic landmark on the Henley Regatta course) and our “special”, Suits v Skins.

Pay a little extra and you can race once in a wetsuit and once without and see how your times compare. We found that for the best swimmers, there was hardly any difference in their times between suits and skins. The slower you are, the bigger the time differential. Good swimmers don’t need the extra buoyancy provided by the wetsuit.

Because it is swum over shorter distances, The Mile is a much simpler event to organise from a safety point of view, so this is our commercial opportunity but it is currently the least popular event, which is quite frustrating for us as a business.  

In August we run the Bridge to Bridge which is a non-competitive event swum in the style of a cycling sportive. Swimmers can ask to complete the swim as a time trial. We had Ollie Wilkinson, who holds the record for the swim around Manhattan do it. He was technically very good, and came out of the water hardly out of breath, having glided effortlessly down the course.


WTC – What’s up next for the Henley Swim?

TK – Having Jeremy working on this full time will really help. We have a ceiling level on entries to the events if they are run on their current format. The Classic we can go up to 750 and the Bridge to Bridge can go to 400-500. Above this we just couldn’t get enough canoes on the water to help with safety.

The event we can really grow is The Mile. We want to build on the family and fun element. We’d like to see people camping, spending the whole day with us and giving them a choice of events, making it a real jamboree. We want catering and product stalls, bouncy castles, you name it.

We can cope with probably 10,000 people. The event is growing but we are a long way off that so we see there is more to do.


WTC – Are families reserved about their children swimming in the river?

TK – There is less of that as the years go on and now it’s the Mums and Dads that are pushing the children into the water and saying come on get on with it.

During the Mile day we are doing a swimming event this year where parents can race with their children. A combined parent/child time will be given. We’re starting this because of popular demand. We are always keen to respond to demand wherever we can, because we are so passionate about our sport.


WTC – What other events do you have planned?

TK – We’ve organised an Oxford v Cambridge race this year.

We approached the presidents of the two universities and got their agreement to do a race. The swimmers are mainly pool swimmers but they recognise that it may be the start of something historic.

Having it at Henley is its obvious home because of the rowing heritage. Unfortunately we couldn’t run it at the time of the Henley Oxford v Cambridge boat races because in March/April, the river would be too cold. So the race will be at a similar time to the Henley Classic Swim.


WTC – Have you encountered any problems along the way?

TK – The year before last was disastrous because we had 2 events cancelled. Consumers expected us to underwrite the weather, so they were expecting a full refund, but we are a small business and we’ve had to pay for everything up front. Most companies’ T&Cs will not cover for acts of god like the British weather.

If that happens again we still can’t afford to refund the entries in full because we still need to pay out our costs in advance. But we’ll try to layer it with alternatives, we’ll look for alternative dates, offer the swimmers entry to a different event or roll their entry over to another year. So we have 3 or 4 ways to recompense swimmers.

But if it all goes pear shaped like in 2012 I’m afraid we cannot refund everything. You either have no event company or you accept some of the liability yourself because the events are not in a controlled fixed environment.

2013 was a difficult year, we were close to saying this wasn’t worth the effort. But I kept on saying to the guys, come on we’re only saying this because we had a bad 2012. Let’s try and see our way through this.

We had a bumper year in 2013 and so far this year entries are flooding in.


Henley Swim co-founders Tom Kean (left of picture) and Jeremy Laming prepare for the early morning plunge.


WTC – We understand that you and Jeremy have started looking at developing Open Water Swimming Clubs with the aid of ASA?

TK – We try and create an environment for everyone. We felt morally obliged to look at ways to make our sport safe. We didn’t want any negative publicity for the sport.

So Jeremy and I have also co-founded three clubs, Henley Open Water Swimming Club, Marlow Open Water Swimming Club, Reading Open Water Swimming Club. Marlow Open Water Swimming Club will be part of the new Marlow Water Sports Hub being built next to Marlow Bridge.

Starting these clubs has given the swimmers the opportunity of being part of a larger community, so if we wanted to object to too much sewage in the river, for instance, we would have a bigger voice. We can also swim safer. We can organise groups, ensure everyone is wearing bright caps and have sufficient support boats.


WTC – What are the advantages of the clubs?

TK – We wanted to give an extra layer of safety and we couldn’t do that ourselves. When we initially looked for insurance cover, the ASA couldn’t help us so we arranged our first insurance through the British Triathlon Federation.

The ASA want to get involved in Open Water swimming because they don’t have a presence at the moment. They are using us and helping us financially to set up these 3 clubs. Henley, Marlow and Reading are becoming the template for how things should be run. The plan is to monitor everything this year with the view that ASA will then roll out the same business model in 2015 throughout the country.


Currently we take a responsible approach to our swimming, we wear bright hats and swim at quiet times of the day when there is little other river traffic. But we want to get another layer of safety and this is why we want to work with the ASA. We need a paddleboard and or a canoe with a group of swimmers but without the numbers a club will generate it’s not viable to get this type of support. The ASA will help create the clubs. 

We have kept the clubs and events completely separate. We’re hoping the clubs will build their own momentum of membership. They’ll create an energy of their own so they’ll look after themselves.


WTC – How big do you see Open Water Swimming getting?

TK – People my age are wearing out with all the sport we’ve been doing. So now, for us worn out people who still want to do sport, the defaults are cycling and swimming. So I think we’re in for another explosion in participation. Open Water Swimming feels the same as when triathlon and cycling exploded, there’s the same sort of buzz about it.

We’re finding people of all shapes and sizes are joining in. At the end of our swims the larger swimmers are usually the ones with the biggest smiles on their faces, and often the earlier finishing times.  The people who can struggle sometimes are those who usually excel – lean athletes whose body composition actually works against them in the water, where a little extra cover provides buoyancy and keeps you that bit warmer.

We have the elite swimmers going off first – just a handful of them - and then you get the performance wave; again based on feedback we mixed men and women because we were finding the quicker women were catching up the slower men in the wave before; then we have the open men and open women. If the women start catching up the men because they have underestimated their ability, it’s their own fault, they should have swum in the performance division. Open Water Swimming gives people who may consider themselves less athletic the chance to shine and to surprise themselves. Finally, we have the sporting division, which is non-competitive and that is surprisingly popular too. For many the challenge is in getting into the river in the first place and then in making it to the end, a bit like, say, running a marathon.   Swimming in Open Water

As well as the sense of achievement, there is a sense of adventure in doing something a little different, and the sheer joy of being in the water in often beautiful surroundings.  My favourite time to swim is in the autumn, when the leaves look so gorgeous and interact so wonderfully with the water.


WTC – Any advice for someone wanting to give Open Water Swimming a go?

TK – If you want to try Open Water Swimming buy or hire a wetsuit and join a club. Swimming with others will increase your confidence very quickly.

Prepare yourself for the cold water. I’ve developed a routine that helps me. I tell myself it isn’t going to bother me, I go through a set Pilates routine at home, put the wet suit on and drive to the course, go for a jog and then get in the water when I’m warm. Start warm and keep warm, that’s my motto. (In fact, Tom said that another reason he likes spring and autumn swimming is the adrenalin rush he gets as he steps into the cold water!).

 Open Water Swimming


WTC – Will Henley Swim develop into other sectors of the sport?

TK – We want to add value and give people the opportunity to try Open Water Swimming in a safe environment. So we’re looking at offering swimming lessons and coaching sessions. I’m also personally interested in doing some swimming coaching. We use a lake in the Reading area to introduce people to the sport, and are keen to help anyone with the desire to give it a go.

What came across very clearly during the entire interview was Tom’s passion for swimming, and Open Water Swimming in particular.  He spoke frequently about his desire to make the sport approachable for everyone, as safe as is possible in a non-sterile environment and of his sheer joy when swimming in a natural outdoor environment, even when he steps into mud and has leaves floating over his face.


Categories: All topics, Interviews, Swimming

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