In January 2019, Sarah Norquoy’s world was shattered by the death of a close friend and her mother’s dementia diagnosis, both within the space of two weeks.

In search of solace from her all-encompassing grief, she turned to wild swimming and found that the freedom, exhilaration and mental challenge was enough to get her through the darkest days.

‘Both losing Fiona and hearing of discovering mum’s illness were devastating and happened less than two weeks apart,’ Sarah tells

‘Fiona had a terminal illness and her passing was expected, but it was still heartbreaking that she was gone. She was my first friend when I moved to Orkney and we had been through a lot together.

‘Mum’s dementia diagnosis was also expected following a year of knowing something was wrong, but it was utterly devastating and I ugly cried for hours. My mum was disappearing before me and I dreaded what the future held.

‘The hardest part of losing Fiona was just the knowledge she was gone forever and I could never again share a joke with her or a piece of news I knew she would be interested in. 

‘With mum, it was the loss of hope. I knew she would only go one way and it was a daily, living grief of seeing such a strong capable woman struggle with everyday tasks like making scrambled eggs or find a jar of coffee.

‘People say you lose them twice, once when they are alive, and again when they leave this world.’

For Sarah, who recently turned 50, swimming was a revelation. Immersing herself in the cold and the salt of the ocean had a deeply cleansing effect on Sarah and was a huge factor in helping her feel like herself again.

She wanted to share her journey of discovery, to let other people know how incredible the power of wild swimming can be in times of deep emotional pain. So, this summer, Sarah published a book as an independent author called Salt On My Skin to tell the story of a year of sea swimming in Orkney in all temperatures and weathers.

Sarah wanted to show that turning 50 and not having a ‘perfect’ body shouldn’t be a barrier to what she wanted to achieve.

‘I’ve tried many ways of keeping active over the years and found swimming suited me best,’ explains Sarah.

‘Too much of me moves when I run! And, following a hip injury that lasted months, I found swimming puts no pressure on my joints.

‘Swimming in the pool is incredibly mindful as I plough up and down the lane thinking only of my breathing, whereas sea swimming brings a different joy. Still very much in the moment as you focus on the cold, but with the added bonus of being surrounded by nature, good company and mental challenge.

‘Wild swimming is now as natural to me as walking the dog. 

‘For a long time, I saw keeping fit as a bit of a chore. I would start new activities and not stick with them, but swimming has stayed with me and I never get bored of it.

‘The beauty of wild swimming in a place like Orkney is there’s always different places and locations to try and you never get bored.’

Sea swimming became Sarah’s therapy as she learnt to live with the grief of losing her friend and dealing with her mum’s decline. 

‘I’m going to quote straight from my book here, it explains it for me so easily,’ says Sarah.

‘I dreamed about Mum and she was young and OK. I awoke grief-stricken, there were tears on my pillow. I was thankful for a day off so went down to the sea close to home. It’s possible to cry and swim at the same time, I’ve discovered.

‘Salty tears merge with the sea and both heal me.

‘As I opened my eyes, it was an unusually spring-like February morning. The sun was streaming in the window and I had a rare day off from work. I decided I needed the ocean to wash away my sadness, so I jumped in the car to the local beach.

‘It was my first lone swim, and I didn’t plan to stay long. I headed across the stones and splashed into the waves. Nothing sharpens your focus like an icy blast from a wave, and as you catch your breath and put your shoulders under, you are totally in the moment and think of nothing else but where you are.

‘There’s no place for distraction, no space for the rest of life. It’s just you, the waves, the cold, the salt, and the moment. That moment might only be ten or 15 minutes, but it’s yours, it’s exhilarating, and the effects can last for hours.

‘The tears I thought I might drown in were washed away by a different kind of saltwater.

‘I returned home reset. I had this. I could do hard things.’

Sarah really committed to her new hobby. She got up at 4.30 am to swim at sunrise, she had a moonlit swim on her 50th birthday, lit up by the last full moon of the decade.

Without a doubt, the most exhilarating was when I had the opportunity to swim in ice,’ says Sarah. ‘This was top of my swimming bucket list and I was high all day.’ 

Sarah says that swimming has had an enormously positive impact on her relationship with her body and body image.

‘I’ve never had a good relationship with my body and have often been mortified with my size and shape,’ she explains.

‘Over the last 18 months, since wild swimming, I’ve been through quite a transition. I broke out of a box I didn’t know I was trapped in and found pulling starfish poses in the sea completely liberating.

‘I discovered I was so much more than the body I was contained in, and my body could do amazing things like swim in six-degree waters and go snorkelling, all before work!

She says wild swimming is completely addictive, and unlike other vices, the side effects are overwhelmingly positive.

‘It’s a great chance to get outside, challenge yourself, boost your mental wellbeing, cope with grief, empty nest, stress; the list is endless,’ says Sarah.

‘To me, being strong is not just about physical strength; its the ability to challenge yourself to do hard things whatever that means to you. To feel empowered by overcoming challenges whatever they look like to you. It’s about learning to love yourself and being able to get back up again, every time.’  

Proud Of What We’re Made Of

This article is part of our weekly series, Proud Of What We’re Made Of, celebrating inspirational women with powerful stories.

Each Wednesday we’ll share the story of a woman who’s overcome challenges to achieve something amazing. You can read every Proud Of What We’re Made Of article here.

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