Every woman's liberation looks different
“Being in the water gives me freedom. It’s where I belong," says Beth French.
Every woman’s liberation looks different. For Beth French – multiple record holder and champion in extreme outdoor swimming – it looks like the open water.
A film about her life, AGAINST THE TIDES, reveals the extraordinary story of a single British mother of an autistic son, and living with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (M.E.) herself, sets out to swim Oceans Seven, the ultimate extreme swimming challenge – to show her son that anything in life is possible.
The Oceans Seven challenge is an odyssey-like relay - very few people have ever completed it – in which the swimmer must test their own limits going shore-to-shore across seven of the world’s most dangerous sea channels.
The challenge took Beth all over the world, along with her team, and the BAFTA-winning director Stefan Stuckert of the critically-acclaimed documentary AGAINST THE TIDES. The documentary received film festival nominations for Best Documentary as well as critical acclaim from TV presenter Lorraine Kelly.
'Lorraine', ITV: "Go and see this film! It's an extraordinary story"
London’s Evening Standard ★★★★ "Incredibly poignant stuff!"
A self-starter in the world of outdoor swimming
Beth is a self-starter in the world of her sport. Inspired by the way the water alleviated symptoms and memories of her chronic illness – Beth decided to undertake the immense training of extreme outdoor swimming herself. Although she utilized a small, close-knit team for the Oceans Seven challenge - Beth takes the strategy of her survival on the open water into her own hands.
Beth is in charge of scheduling food and energy breaks, and plotting her course to the shore in real time, during exhausting hours in the water and even when the sea gets rough.
In AGAINST THE TIDES, Stuckert observes the extreme dedication that Beth commits to. Beth raised the funding herself for the Oceans Seven challenge with savings and a community crowdfunding project.
Beth is a single working mother and despite not having the privilege to retire and train full time for her passion, she is the first person, and only woman, to swim from Cornwall to Scilly Isles (26 miles), the first British woman to complete the massive Molokai channel (28 miles) and the only woman to swim it twice, and a co-world record holder for completing four Oceans 7 swims in a single year.
Exploring the special bond between mother and son
Beth’s experience as a single mother is intertwined with her athleticism. As her devoted son Dylan regularly waits for her at every shoreline, he is both the reason to start and to complete the swim.
Beth’s approach to motherhood is a liberated one, one in which her own goals and personhood isn’t defined by her domestic life. She believes that being the “best version of herself” (including her athleticism) is how she can best influence Dylan’s life.
The documentary explores the special bond between mother and son in a nuanced way. Dylan is on the autistic spectrum. And due to her own life experience with disability, Beth wishes to show her son that he doesn’t have to limit his dreams to suit anyone else’s expectations of him. Never afraid to take the unconventional route, Beth removed Dylan from his school when she saw that his needs were not being met and his self-esteem plummeted. Now, he is home-schooled with Beth, who is dedicated to seeing him thrive and believe in himself.
Dylan’s anxieties and stresses on dry land played a huge part in her organisation of the swims. In Beth’s view, the Oceans Seven challenge is as much Dylan’s journey as hers, and the accomplishment of each new place reached was ultimately a shared one.
Beth’s challenge was less about a world record or a certain width of water crossed. Instead, it was one women’s personal experience - for herself and for her family.
Calling for more understanding of chronic illness
Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E) or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is a fluctuating disorder that can range between completely disabling flare-ups to more manageable pain and exhaustion.
Beth experienced her first extreme flare up at the age of 10 and spent a significant portion of her young life in a wheelchair. She also experienced ableism and a lack of understanding of the invisible disability from medical professionals, which was itself traumatic. When she entered remission, Beth’s post-recovery outlook was one of positivity and curiosity for the world. She travelled extensively and worked abroad, which is where she first fell in love with the ocean.
Since then, Beth has represented and called for more understanding of the chronic illness. She is open about the limitations of her disability and the support people with M.E deserve.
With her actions, she shows that it is up to the person with the condition to decide what they are capable of – not an outsider.
The Oceans Seven challenge, like all of Beth’s sporting ventures, come with the threat of causing a relapse of severe M.E symptoms. Nevertheless, Beth takes each race, climb, hike, workout, and swim as an experience of freedom and expression.
She used the Oceans Seven challenge as a learning experience for her own body’s limits and potential.
Beth is a great example of balancing self-care with personal ambition. As a regular public speaker, she has appeared at the Inspire movement at Google HQ, the Women’s Adventure Expo, and RAC Pall Mall to share her story and spread the word about M.E and female athleticism.
Beth French continues to travel with her son Dylan, as well as speak at public events and train in a variety of outdoor sports. She was interviewed by Lorraine Kelly on ITV, and her documentary AGAINST THE TIDES, released in the US, UK, Canada, Ireland, Australia and NZ On Demand.
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