Sarah Hicks has shone in establishing The Penguins Open Water Swimming Club

Medal winner Sarah Hicks


This week we at are delighted to introduce a new sport for us, and we suspect for most of you, as we chat to Sarah Hicks, the instigator of the Tenby Penguins Open Water Swimming Club, which uses the natural resources around our beautiful coastline to swim safely and sometimes competitively, in the open sea.

Sarah set up the club as a means of keeping talented young swimmers actively involved in the sport when a group of them between the ages of 13 and 15 (including her younger daughter Katie) wanted a change from the daily grind of long training sessions in the pool of up to 14 hours a week, and do something different.

So she called a meeting with them and the idea of taking part in open water swimming was mooted (as it is done in the swimming section of events like the annual ‘Iron Man Wales’ and ‘Long Course Weekend’) – and the Tenby Penguins came into being as a result, aimed totally at that time for junior members.

Other spin-offs from the club’s formation

But as that particular group has spread its wings (or should that be fins?!) so more and more adults have become involved under Sarah’s infectious leadership. And that started out when she was approached to see if she would take under her wing four absolutely raw novice swimmers who needed to make huge progress in open water swimming because they had entered Iron Man Wales – but more of that later.

She has also led from the front in terms of participation in other areas she is understandably proud of, including raising funds for charity with a couple of very challenging ventures that saw her become part of a small group that swam from Dover to Calais in icy waters, as well as a virtual circumnavigation of Wales – and these will again be dealt with later!

Family matters . . .

Firstly, though, it is important to describe how Sarah set out on the watery road to establishing the county’s first open-water club.

“My husband Ray isn’t interested in swimming but has always given total support to me and our daughters Abigail (25) and Katie (21) as they took up swimming with Tenby Dolphins and I used to go along and watch from the balcony.

“In my younger days I had been a swimmer at Bush School, competing in front and back crawl at the Pembroke Swimming Club which had been started by a group of people including my mother Jackie Tomkins (Bates) and Huw Morgan, who did so well in sorting out the legalities of forming a new club.

Starting out in helping at Tenby Dolphins . . .

“But like a lot of others I ran out of steam in my mid-teens and it was only whilst watching Abigail train from the viewing area at Tenby that I offered to give a little help to inspiring coaches such as John Amos at poolside.

“This led me to my taking the ‘Pool Coach’ qualification which was organised by Welsh Swimming over a couple of weekends in Swansea – and after a while helping out in that role I was persuaded by Ann Adams and her husband Bob, who have done so much for swimming in our county and beyond, to become a ‘British Judge for Competitive Swimming’.

“It meant I was then qualified to stand poolside at events to ensure that swimmers met the rules of competition – and as a result started to travel all over the UK to officiate at competitions right up to international level with Martin Noble, Carol Veale, Ann and Bob as we often travelled together.

. . . And then Tenby Penguins came into being

“But it was when Katie reached 14 and began to find maintaining her training regime so hard with school commitments and other things that she and a number of her friends were thinking of stepping down that I met up with them all and the idea of open water swimming was first mooted.

“I had already started some open water swimming of my own with some friends as a form of rehab for a bad back but to be honest Swim Wales didn’t want to know about branching out and I decided that if we were going to start our own club it had to be done the right way.

“So I became the first Level 2 open water swimming coach in Wales after making the very long journey to Doncaster for three weekends – and learned a lot very quickly as we started our sessions in the pool and dealt with sighting and breathing differences from what the children had been used to before; safety in the water, being aware of other living things in the sea, dealing with panic attacks – and a host of other considerations.

“The children took to it straight away and so The Tenby Penguins Open Water Swimming Club was up and running!

Immediate success in Open Water Swimming

“Our first competition was at Eton Dorney, the Olympic Rowing Course in Buckinghamshire, and after overcoming difficulties about obtaining insurance because we were competing against adults, we set off with an air of anticipation – and caused quite a stir as we swept the board in terms of trophies!

“We actually hit the national headlines, with a mention on TV news and in newspapers and when we went to a competition at a lake in The Cotswolds we won there too, as well as more local events, like my daughter Katie and Owen Thomas winning the 1.2 miles swim on the Long Course weekend in Tenby.”

A new challenge – with novice adult swimmers

Just when Sarah thought she was about to lose her swimmers because they were all going off to new challenges, but had promised to continue to spread the message about the benefits of open water swimming, she found a new outlet for her enthusiasm when she was asked, out of the blue, to help coach four fellers who couldn’t swim a length of the pool but had entered Iron Man Wales!

“It was quite a challenge,” admitted Sarah with typical understatement, “but they were all very eager and by the following year their number had doubled – and as well as looking at their swimming technique we dealt with other issues like how to steer clear of problem areas with so many swimmers wanting a particular space which they might be occupying!

“I can still remember the pride I felt when I saw them enter the water – and come out safe and sound after completing their 2.4-mile swim and getting onto their cycling and running components of the competition.
“I can only compare it to watching Katie and Owen win the Long Course race on the other occasions.

Sarah swims as a ship comes near

More and more events – and greater challenges

“So now we have a flourishing adult section and last year we became affiliated to the British Triathlon Federation because more and more swimmers want to compete as part of triathlon – and also to do more seas swims.”

As well as more famous events Sarah and Co also compete at MUUK (St Davids) and Solva events, in Fishguard and other places around our coast.

“Up until three years ago I only did wet-suit swimming before I got into ‘skin swimming’ when I took part in events like the ‘TenFoot Swim’, over a distance of 5kms between Tenby and Saundersfoot, which is really well run and a challenge to overcome the currents around Monkstone, plus others at Coppett Hall and Amroth.”

Sarah in the sea

Great work for charities

Sarah has since taken part in several charity events and enjoyed being part of a team of six which swam The English Channel in 16 hours, taking hour-long turns in the water and swimming in the dark from Shakespeare Beach in Dover.

“I took the 3am shift, which is quite eerie getting into ice-cold water in the dark, not knowing what is underneath you, and all six of us stepped onto French soil together after completing the final stages together.

“We received a lot of help from The Channel Swimming & Pilot Federation and all the funds raised were for the ‘Aspire’ charity, which helps people paralysed from spinal injuries.

“Because of the Covid restrictions I completed the majority of 2020 training in an ordinary kiddies’ garden pool which was little more than six feet in length and where I was tethered to it by what I can only describe as a giant elastic band – and although I know it sounds crazy it actually worked!”

She has also competed in ultra-swims on Lake Windermere and Coniston Water, with respective distances of 10.5 and seven miles – and added another swim this year for the ‘We Will Remember Them’ charity under the auspices of the Laura Hyde Foundation, which looks after front-line NHS workers.

There’s also a triathlon event in June where the aim is to do a virtual circumnavigation of Wales where participants are encouraged to swim, cycle, run or climb to achieve the maximum mileage possible.

And finally . . .

Sarah will be involved and encourage others to participate and, who knows, perhaps some of her early young charges who have now branched out in life but still keep in contact, might get to hear about it.

“When they set off on their adult journey I simply asked them if they would help keep the dream alive by spreading the good news of the benefits of Open Water Swimming,” Sarah told us.

One only has to talk to Sarah Hicks for a short while to appreciate her enjoyment of, and commitment to, the Tenby Penguins Open Water Swimming Club – and long may she continue to inspire others in this unique water sport!

Diving into the sea at 3am!