Swim Dem Crew inspire others to learn to swim in Hackney

Nationwide advert showcases Hackney's swimming pools and reservoirs

YOU see that final shot, where we all jump into the reservoir together? It was 4am. The water was freezing. We had to do about 20 takes to get it right. But it was worth it, to get our message out.” 

Nathaniel Cole is explaining how a casual decision he made to start swimming with two friends, ended up with 14 people taking a leap into Stoke Newington’s West Reservoir (pictured below) to create an advert that has been beamed into cinemas and living rooms across the country.

“Swim Dem Crew started in 2013, with just me, Peigh Asante and Emily Deyn,” he explains. Adding: “We all knew each other from Run Dem Crew and realised we were swimming at London Fields Lido, just at different times. So we started swimming together.”

It is hard to define Run Dem Crew. Set up in 2007, it isn’t a running club, but more a ‘community’ which runs together every week, and takes part in races across the world. Since it now has over 200 weekly members, ‘phenomenon’ might be a better word to describe it, and the community that sprang from it, includes the Swim Dem Crew.

“We didn’t want to join a club, but swimming alone can be a bit boring. For us it’s as much about the community as the exercise,” adds Nathaniel, who has lived in Hackney all his life. 

Sessions take place every Monday evening and Saturday morning at different locations around London. Membership is free, swimmers just pay the cost of entry to the pool. Nathaniel explains: “They are an hour long, and we break into three different groups – tadpoles, dolphins and sharks – depending on ability.”

Last year, Peigh got a call from a casting director about Swim Dem appearing in an advert for Google Android. He recalls: “Before we knew it, they were saying the advert was going to air during the England friendly and 'X Factor', plus in cinemas!”

When the advert came out, telling the story of co-founder Peigh teaching himself how to swim after injuring his leg and then inspiring other crew members to take the plunge, they had 200 applications for membership. 

“Now we open up membership every four months or so and, sadly, we can’t take everyone who applies, otherwise we’d turn up at pools and swamp them,” says Nathaniel.

Helping people is a big part of Swim Dem’s mission. They recently supported Swim Hackney, a pilot scheme funded by Hackney Council, which aims to break down the barriers preventing adults from learning to swim. Fifteen non-swimmers were taught the skill through twice-weekly sessions at London Fields Lido and Clissold Leisure Centre.

Last summer, the crew also collaborated with TV presenter Andy Akinwolere on the Swim Challenge programme.

Nathaniel explains: “We assisted two teachers to train a group of young people in the pool. Then, when they were ready, we took them into the open water and scared the life out of them! It’s so different out there, it’s dark, you can’t see the bottom, there’s nothing to hold on to...”

It took a lot of persuading and mentoring to keep some of them in the programme, but finally they took the group to Manchester to swim a mile in open water in the Great North Swim. 

“I swam alongside a girl who came in last, and when we got to the finishing line everyone was there, clapping and cheering,” says Nathaniel. 

Adding: “That’s got to count as one of my top moments. When you teach someone to swim you show them that, when you stick at something, you can achieve it. It gives you self-belief.”

Swimming has worked its magic on Nathaniel too. Since starting Swim Dem, he has given up his job at a design agency and become a full-time swimming teacher.

He says: “The thing about swimming, is that you can really zone out. I love running, but when you’re doing it there are loads of distractions: you can be listening to music, traffic, the sounds of the street. With swimming it’s just you and the water. It takes you away from everything else.”

To find out more visit: the Swim Dem Crew site or their Instagram page.