'I fractured my spine in childbirth – now I'm swimming the English Channel'

Heather Clatworthy broke her spine during childbirth in 2010 – but doctors didn’t realise as they put her screams down to the pain of giving birth.

‘I was giving birth to my first child, Lilly, Heather tells us.

‘When I asked the midwife if the pain I was experiencing in my upper back was normal, I will never forget her saying to me; “It’s going to get a hell of a lot harder than this love!”‘

It wasn’t until Lilly was a few weeks old that Heather finally went to the doctors, after simple tasks like lifting her daughter out of her Moses basket, became unbearable.

‘They told me that I had likely pulled a muscle whilst breastfeeding and sent me back home with painkillers, which I was unable to take due to their side effects.

‘I will always remember my worst day; I tried to lift the car seat with my daughter in it from the pram to the car.

‘It was pouring with rain and after attempting multiple angles; I ended up on all fours, desperately trying to shelter Lilly from the rain, seeking help from a random passerby.’

She went back to the doctors, but her pain was again dismissed as muscular. Months later, Heather finally had a scan which confirmed that she had fractured her spine and developed osteoporosis.

‘As a new mother who was virtually alone, this felt like a death sentence,’ says Heather. ‘I just kept thinking; “how can I wrap myself up in cotton wool while being a good mother at the same time?”‘

She got through the worst of it, and when she fell pregnant again she did everything she could to strengthen her body to prevent a recurrence – but weeks after giving birth to her son Basil in 2014, she fractured her spine for the second time.

‘I was out jogging with the pram,’ explains Heather. ‘The doctor told me that I would need to take painkillers for the rest of my life to control the pain.

‘Once I had weaned Lilly off breast milk, I succumbed to the painkillers, but I quickly realised that this would result in a lifetime of inactivity – and likely weight gain, given my love for food!’

The medication Heather was prescribed had a strong sedative effect on her body, which was a completely impractical solution for a mother who was raising her babies single-handedly, for the majority of the time.

That’s when she turned to fitness.

‘I began to read up on more natural healing processes, and with the full support of my consultant, I chose to manage my spine through fitness.

‘In addition to this, I take a small dose of medication and a vitamin D supplement which aids my bone strength.’

Heather grew up in a small, seaside town in Northern Ireland, so she spent most of her childhood around the water.

In 2016, back home in Northern Ireland, Heather was sitting on a hill looking out to sea and remembered how she had always desperately wanted to swim the 13-miles to the other side of the coast.

‘I decided there and then that I was going to do whatever it took to at least attempt it, and I knew that the only person who could stop me from achieving it was myself.

‘The day of the swim arrived and I completed it in four hours, 20 minutes; I was so shocked because I had prepared to be in the water for over 24 hours, let alone break a record in being the first Irish person to have ever completed the swim.

‘It was at that moment I realised that I could complete any challenge I put my mind to, and it is that mind-set that has shaped who I am today.’

Now Heather needed her next challenge. A self-described ‘adrenaline junkie’, she knew she had to go big. She decided to swim the length of the English Channel.

‘My first attempt was in 2018, but unfortunately, I didn’t successfully complete it because the weather and tidal change took me too far North of the French coastline.

‘I was still really happy with what I’d achieved though; I wasn’t even sure if I’d reach the half way point which I did so this time, I can only do my best and hope that everything goes smoothly on the day.’

Heather lives in the midlands – as far from the sea as it’s possible to be in the UK, so the majority of her training takes place in the local river.

‘Plunging myself into freezing cold water can be quite challenging, especially during the winter, but for me, the hardest thing is fitting in the time to train whilst working full-time and being a mother of two young children.

‘But, after a few hours, I forget about all that and just feel grateful that I can still enjoy training whilst keeping my spine healthy at the same time.’

Heather says she sees herself in three different versions; firstly a mother, secondly a career woman, and thirdly herself.

‘Putting myself last is a choice, but essential if I am to hold us all together,’ she explains.

‘In some ways, swimming is my “me time”, but I’m not someone who craves much of this.

‘When I’ve been at work all day, got home and helped the children with their homework, cooked our tea, read them a bedtime story and completed the housework, the last thing I want to do is ask a friend to babysit so that I can go out and train for a few hours.

‘But, once I am in the zone and can focus solely on just breathing and moving, I am reminded of the tremendous physical and mental health benefits that swimming gives me, which I know help me to be a better mummy to my two beautiful children.’

Heather says she’s conscious that what she does has a direct impact on her kids, and she says she never wants her training to have a knock-on effect on their lives.

‘Everything I do is with their consent – I ask them: “Do you want mummy to try to swim to France?” And every time they reply; “yes and you’d better get there this time!”

‘I try to incorporate most of my training into being a mum at the same time; we often take the bikes and go on long adventures; do yoga before breakfast together, or we go down to the park with our friends and set each other fun assault course style challenges using the monkey bars, picnic benches and logs.’

Heather says swimming is the thing that has helped her grow into a strong, independent woman – despite the setbacks and injuries she has faced.

When I swim, nobody can call me into a last-minute meeting at work, or ask if we can make an entire city out of a cardboard box ready for the next day at school.

‘During this time, I remind myself that no bills need to be paid or work deadlines need to be met. It is a time when I can be my raw self, without wearing any mascara or heels or forcing a bright smile regardless of how my day’s gone.

‘All I have to do is keep swimming as best as I can, before I get home and put my “mum hat” back on.’

Heather believes that her strength comes from her ability to overcome difficult times, but she says she couldn’t feel as strong as she does without the enduring support of her friends and family.

‘Without them, I wouldn’t be able to go out for long training sessions on my own, or to juggle being a full-time mum and working at the same time; it is them cheering me on and waiting to give me a huge hug at the end of every long swim I do – I am so grateful.

‘A strong woman is simply one who survives adversity and turns every negative situation she conquers into a positive one that benefits both her own and others’ lives.

‘I was privileged to hold the hand of my maternal grandmother as she took her last breaths, and I learnt a lot from her life journey.

‘That strong 94-year-old woman, who was once a girl, a mum, a worker, a cake and jam making great-granny, charitable fundraiser and socialite to the many, taught me that when times are tough, you just have to keep going and when times are good, you should cherish them forever.’

Heather has been a keen horse rider since she was seven years old and will be swimming across the channel in aid of The British Horse Society.

Strong Women

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A Sport England study found that 40% of women were avoiding physical activity due to a fear of judgement.

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We hope that by normalising diverse depictions of women who are fit, strong and love their bodies, we will empower all women to shed their self-consciousness when it comes to getting active.

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