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I believe there is great healing power in the sea

Deirdre Keaney began sea swimming in 2017 as a way of dealing with the everyday stresses of life. But the discipline of a daily dip also helped her cope with a devastating family tragedy and led to the launch of her own business, writes Erin McCafferty


Deirdre says sea swimming provided an emotional lifeline following the death of her niece Emma (22) from cancer in 2019.

Deirdre says sea swimming provided an emotional lifeline following the death of her niece Emma (22) from cancer in 2019.

Deirdre says sea swimming provided an emotional lifeline following the death of her niece Emma (22) from cancer in 2019.

When Galway woman Deirdre Keaney first started sea swimming four years ago, little did she did she know it would change her life, helping her to cope not only with daily stresses, but also with the tragic death of her beautiful 22-year-old niece.

"Getting into the cold sea gives me an immediate body and mind reset," explains the 49-year-old mother of five. "The immersion in cold water makes me forget all my worries for a little while, and the jolt of adrenaline puts me in a happy place.

"If I can get into the freezing cold water every day, I feel like I can accomplish other tougher things in life. It builds resilience," she adds.

It was this overall feeling of wellbeing that she began to crave on a daily basis, even in the depths of winter.

Sea swimming also became a lifeline after August 2017 when Deirdre received the news that her 20-year-old niece, Emma Shuttleworth, had, out of the blue, been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour.

Emma, who lived in Sydney, Australia, had just returned from a year travelling the world, when she developed double vision in one eye. She went to have it checked out and was diagnosed with a brain tumour, and was initially given no chance of survival.


Emma Shuttleworth died from cancer in 2019.

Emma Shuttleworth died from cancer in 2019.

Emma Shuttleworth died from cancer in 2019.

"I can't even begin to describe the shock and the absolute heartbreak of the news," says Deirdre, who is one of five children and whose own kids were very close to their cousin.

"Emma was such an incredibly beautiful, principled young woman with so many plans for the future. She was the picture of health and passionate about veganism. It seemed so unjust."

Over the following year, Emma received radiation treatment in Australia, and all the time stayed upbeat about her health.

Then, in July 2018, she was told the treatment was working. She was given the all-clear by her doctor. Delighted with the news, she travelled to Galway with her mother, father and sister to see her extended family. "She was the eldest of 20 cousins," explains Deirdre. "We had lots of family get-togethers while she was here and made lovely memories."

But when Emma returned home, she was told the cancer had returned.

This time it had spread throughout her body. She passed away the following March in 2019, leaving her family and extended family in Ireland completely bereft.

Deirdre was standing in an airport on her own, about to board a plane to Australia when she got the phone call.

"I will never forget that moment," she says. "I boarded the plane and cried for most of the journey."

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In the months that followed, the only thing that helped her deal with the loss was sea swimming. "Getting into the cold sea became a healing ritual for me," she says.

"On the freezing cold days, when I was standing at the shoreline and really didn't want to go in, I'd say to myself, 'Do it for Emma'. Now all my friends say the same thing; 'Do it for Emma'.

"I really believe there is great healing power in the sea and I encourage anyone who is dealing with a loss of any kind to give sea swimming a go," she adds.

With five kids aged from seven to 16, Deirdre used to find it hard to get time to herself, and when she did, she'd feel guilty. Now a daily swim, combined with a two-mile run sets her up for the day. It also gave her a social outlet during lockdown.

But sea swimming has become more than just a way to cultivate a feeling of wellbeing - it's also led to an exciting new business venture.

Frustrated at efforts to dry herself after a swim with a towel and finding it would take up to two hours sometimes to warm up afterwards in winter, she began to think there had to be a better way.

She realised there was a need for insulated clothing and set about researching her idea. She attended trade shows, talked to other swimmers and came up with a design for her Nug range of waterproof changing robes, that are both practical and look good. 'Nug' is an Aussie surf term for a good wave.

While there are lots of swim robes on the market these days, these differ in that they're not only practical but look good. They hug the body and are less bulky than traditional robes.

Starting the business six months before lockdown, Deirdre had no idea that sea swimming would become so popular and her business would explode.

She has now added poncho swim towels, double-lined Polar jackets and fleece-lined hats to her range, and the orders are flooding in.

For her, it is more than just a business; it's also a way to promote swimming in the sea, a subject which she's clearly passionate about. "I want everyone to experience the benefits that I have," she says. "It has literally changed my life."

She has plans to expand the business to Australia, so that her sister Grainne - Emma's mother - will get involved.

"In a sense, it's a way to keep close to all of them, while also keeping Emma's memory alive," she adds. "Emma will never be forgotten."

  • Visit nugchangingrobe.com for more details on the products

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