Momtaz Begum-Hossain is in a minority when she goes outdoor swimming – she is often the only South Asian woman, or woman of colour, in the water.
Momtaz only learnt how to swim as an adult and she never thought she would be confident enough to swim outdoors in wild settings, but she pushed herself to become braver and now she’s completely hooked.
Since sharing her new passion for swimming, she has received lots of messages from Asian women who told her they don’t know how to swim, but would love to learn. Now she’s hoping to inspire other ethnic minority women to take the plunge and show that wild swimming really is for everybody.
Like many people, Momtaz’s fitness journey started at school, and her memories are filled with PE horror stories.
‘I was told I was the worst person in my class at tennis so I had to play on my own, I came last every sports day and the dreaded swimming lessons,’ Momtaz tells Metro.co.uk.
‘As a child, the only water I had been in was a bathtub, so the pool petrified me. Each week I trembled as I gingerly clambered into the pool. I was the only pupil in my year not to get a green ribbon.’
Things changed when Momtaz went to university.
‘I started to get active by going to dance classes,’ she says. ‘I tried everything from African and Ragga Jam to contemporary, and it was the first time I realised, “hang on, exercise is actually fun!”
And now, the fun factor is still the most important element for Momtaz. She describes herself as active, but certainly not a fitness freak.
‘You won’t find me on a gym treadmill, but you will see me at the weekly group cycle class where the instructor turns the disco ball on and plays old school drum n bass.
‘I’m also partial to boxfit because I love the shorts (I have three pairs) and just putting them on gives me a buzz.’
At 20, Momtaz couldn’t swim. But while she was doing an undergraduate placement on the outskirts of Reading, the only amenity was a leisure centre and she was offered swimming lessons, so she went along to try them.
‘The tutor immediately made me feel at ease,’ she says. ‘Her enthusiasm and positive spirit kept me coming back and I soon felt confident in the water.
‘A few months later, I went on a fieldtrip to Los Angeles as part of my Geography degree. Having the heat of the LA sun on my back and watching the beauty of sunlight reflected on the water’s surface in the hostel pool made me realise that swimming wasn’t just about “swimming”, but also slowing down and appreciating life.
‘I guess I was experiencing the “mindful” benefits of swimming before I even knew what mindfulness was.’
But swimming pools is one thing, and open water is a completely different beast. Momtaz’s first experience of open water swimming was at Hampstead Ponds, and it completely terrified her – but only for the first few seconds.
‘I lowered my body into the water and stretched my legs out to discover with horror that I had done so in the wrong direction – right into the currents,’ she says.
‘As I clung onto the steps I could feel the water pulling me under. Luckily a friend came to my rescue and explained I should start swimming rather than hold on.
‘I let go and was pleasantly surprised at how easy I found it, but it was only when I got out of the water that I realised the real benefits. My muscles felt instantly relaxed and my whole body felt free in a way it had never done in a public swimming pool.
‘I began to crave that sensation of being in fresh, natural water so I started swimming alfresco wherever I could; in ponds, lakes, weirs, waterfalls, at home and abroad. But I’ve never been a strong swimmer, I do a very leisurely breaststroke and I only swim in water that I feel safe in, which means nothing too wavy.’
When Momtaz moved to East London’s Royal Docks three years ago, she was amazed to discover that people swam in them.
For the first two years she jealously watched the swimmers but could never pluck up he courage to go in herself.
‘I had heard the water was cold, deep and unpredictable. There was no way I was going in,’ she says.
‘Then last year, on a balmy Indian summer evening in September, I had this urge to give it a try. It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done – and I hated it.
‘The waves were vigorous, there was nowhere to stand and I felt stressed out that I was getting in the way of the triathletes who use the docks to train in. I didn’t last five minutes. I was proud I had tried it but decided I was never going in there again.’
Momtaz retreated back to her usual leisure centre where she swam indoors two or three times a week, before lockdown kicked in. But without outdoor swimming – something was missing.
‘My life felt incomplete,’ says Momtaz.
‘I missed the water so much. When it was announced eight weeks later that swimming in lakes and the sea was allowed again I sighed, as I don’t live near either.
‘But then I heard the docks had re-opened. Still scarred by my ordeal from last year, I sat at home feeling sorry for myself, that I wasn’t good enough to swim in them.
‘But with the weather reaching the mid 20s, and the constant urge to feel water lapping against my skin, I gave it another try.
‘It was the best decision I’ve ever made. The temperature was a refreshing 17 degrees but I didn’t mind the coolness. It felt amazing.’
Over the last month, Momtaz has been swimming regularly in the docks and each time she stays longer, swims further and has even tackled wavier conditions.
‘It has become an addiction,’ she adds. ‘I love the sense of freedom, being in such an expansive space and the joy of swimming up close and personal with the ducks.’
Since she has been sharing photos of herself swimming on social media, Momtaz has received so many messages from Asian women to tell her that they can’t swim.
‘Some of the reasons have included health issues, the fact they’ve never learnt, or feeling uncomfortable wearing swimming costumes,’ says Momtaz. ‘But I would argue that all of these concerns can be resolved.
‘Swimming is low impact. Just lying back in the water and floating without fear is something everyone should experience, it’s such a natural feeling and once you’re comfortable and realise that the pool is a place of pleasure, the swimming will come.
‘Modest swimwear is widely available too and it’s not just worn by Muslim women, but anyone who doesn’t want to wear a classic costume.’
Momtaz strongly believes that the joy of being physically active is something that everyone should experience, that everyone has a right to in their lives.
‘Being active isn’t a hobby or a privilege, it’s a basic biological ability that comes with being a human,’ says Momtaz.
‘Yet, we don’t all want to exercise in the same way. That’s why we need to make sure that all forms of fitness are accessible to everyone – and I think it’s a fitness provider’s responsibility to prioritise how they do this.
‘My pool in Tower Hamlets has women-only swimming sessions largely attended by Bangladeshi women who go with friends and family.
‘Before lockdown, I was attending a weekly Afrobeats dance class in Woolwich where the tutor was Afro-Caribbean and 90% of the class were Black women. The class was always full to capacity. The gym had scheduled it specifically to appeal to the local community and it worked.’
Momtaz says she draws confidence and inspiration from iconic strong women who are cultural icons – she says she likes to believe she can be like them.
‘This might sound a bit crazy, but I’ve always had this fantasy that one day I’ll be cast as a Bond Girl or Bat Girl in a movie,’ she tells us. ‘And often when I’m faced with a task that requires physical ability, I tell myself it’s part of the audition, or I’m in the role so I have to do it.
‘There’s something about knowing they can do it, so I can too – that gives me confidence.
‘In reality though it’s real women, not those in fiction, that have shown me what strength is.’
In the latter years of Momtaz’s mother’s life, she suffered a heart attack and had her leg amputated.
‘She was the most frail she’d ever been, yet the day she came home from hospital she wheeled herself into the kitchen in her new wheelchair, stretched up as far as she could to reach the cupboards and made my dad a cup of tea,’ Momtaz recalls.
‘While others would have been in bed resting, she was determined to get her life back to normal and she didn’t let anything stop her.
‘Doctors said she’d never walk again, but she stuck with the physio and before she passed away she was able to hobble around the house with a crutch and prosthetic leg.
‘That to me is what being a strong woman is. Pushing yourself to do things, even when they might not seem possible.’