Is it even January if your gym isn’t packed to the rafters and everywhere shop you step into has a new superfood or protein thingy-ma-jig to promise you super abs and rock-hard glutes? To be honest I’m officially over it. I mean seriously, can a girl not run in red-faced sweaty peace, without being outstripped by a lycra-covered superhuman with every gleaming gadget to track and tread their workout? Oh for a simpler, My Fitness Pal free exercise time.
Well pine no longer, because today we’re bringing it back to health goals of the past. So sit down, have a brew or a refreshing cucumber-infused power water and lets discuss the absolute fitness hero of the 20th century: Sunny Lowry.
Sunny was one of the first (one of, I stress, one of!) British women to swim the English Channel. She defied all expectations, broke major sporting ground and dedicated her life to supporting the young people of the North in pursuing their own athletic dreams. Oh, and one time, she was almost arrest for public indecency…
And yet, despite all this amazingness, have you heard of her? Probably not.
So eat your heart our David Walliams, because this absolute athletic goddess is the real ruler of the English Channel.
Born in Manchester in January 1911, Sunny Lowry didn’t exactly come from a place that screamed open water sea swimming. After all, Manchester ‘has got everything except a beach.’ Sunny’s dad was a fish seller, so at least she had some kind of marine-life around her, even if it was, well, dead.
She was bright, attending Manchester High School for Girls, classing the infamous Pankhurst sisters as fellow alumni, and shared their rebellious and challenging nature. When asked by her Headmistress what she wanted to do when older, she simply replied:
‘Swim the Channel.’
That got her into trouble and she was told to abandon these dreams. Still, they weren’t that outlandish for Sunny. In fact, there was a surge of interest in Channel swimming in the 1920s, because what says fun like donning a ridiculously unsuitable bathing suit and running into a vast body of water? As the social restrictions set against women slowly began to disappear, more and more women started to give it a go and in 1926, Gertrude Ederle, the American long-distance swimmer, became the first woman to swim the Channel.
You think Cross fit is hard? They didn’t have WET SUITS. You know wet suits, the things that keep you warm and covered up. These swimmers were hard core, braving frigid choppy waters in basic bathing suits and look how happy they still are!
Yet despite everything to the contrary, Sunny stayed firm in her dream and started swimming lessons. It soon became quite evident that the girl swam like a fish. So she joined Levenshulme Swimming Club and attended lessons at Hathersage Baths – better known as Victoria Baths. Soon, she started winning pretty much every competition going and training outdoors.
Sunny was out to prove everyone wrong.
Ok, Manchester didn’t have a beach, fine. To train she travelled up and down the country, from the Lake District, to Blackpool, and even to North Wales to swim outdoors, where she once even helped save the lives of two drowning girls.
Then, in 1932, Sunny got her chance. An advert appeared in the newspapers:
‘Wanted – a British-born girl aged 17 to 20, weight about 11 stone, with the courage to beat Captain Webb’s channel swimming time of 21 ¾ hours.’
The advert was placed by (cue the excellent name incoming klaxon) famous swimming coach Jabez Wolffe, who had failed to swim the Channel himself and so he followed that mantra of ‘those that can’t do, teach’. He became a ruthlessly brilliant trainer instead.
Sunny responded and beat 300 other women to the position. She moved down to the South East and began training in Dover and Kent. To build up a bulk that would protect her from the icy water, she went for runs on the beach, lifted weights, and ate up to forty eggs a week.
Top fitness tip from Sunny: why bother with clean eating when you can cancel out all other food groups for eggs?
Sunny had herself one of the best trainers in the business. Her dream was so close she could taste it. But not without a hearty dose of hypothermia and failure, right?
That’s right. Wolffe told her straight away that if she couldn’t handle the cold water she might as well leave, and Sunny herself said:
‘I used to go in [to the sea] and come out not feeling my ankles…’
It’s making me shiver at the very notion. But Sunny was determined and in August 1932, she had her first bash at swimming the Channel.
Despite being covered in goose fat, accompanied by a boat full of bagpipes to keep her to rhythm and a supply of beef tea to nourish her, Sunny failed to cross the Channel.
She could almost see the finish line (Folkstone) when the rough and stormy seas became too much and she had no choice but to abandon her swim after spending over fifteen hours in the water. The first attempt had a lasting impact on Sunny, as the jellyfish stings and pain of the swim was cancelled out by the dolphins that came to swim alongside her.
Still, Sunny refused to abandon her goal. She tried again in July 1933, bagpipes and all, but this time the storms were so bad that in the dead of night, Sunny actually disappeared in the waves – and it took an hour to locate her. She was only found when the crew spotted her bright red swimming cap amongst the endless crashing waves.
So once again only a few hours away from the shore, Sunny had to give up.
But, she didn’t hang around for her next shot. Only a month later, she was back in Gris Nez, France, setting off for Blighty. With her trusty pilot boat, beef tea, and of course, bagpipes, Sunny, third time lucky, crossed the channel in just under sixteen hours.
Sunny had done it! Covered in jellyfish stings, blue from cold and exhausted, she crawled up the beach, to be met with cries of:
‘I should have you arrested!!’
That’s right, despite a huge athletic achievement, Sunny was accused of public indecency because of the lightweight, two-piece swimsuit she was wearing.
Luckily, the offended party didn’t call the police, and Sunny was hailed as a national champion. She flew her Levenshulme Swimming Club flag, complete with the Manchester worker bee and red rose of Lancashire and carried out a national tour of judging galas, opening baths, and demonstrating her swimming prowess.
However – Sunny’s swim wasn’t recognised by the Channel Swimming Association until 1958, over twenty years after it took place. Funny that, how women’s achievements almost get left out of history, doesn’t ever happen, can’t imagine why…*insert massive eye roll*
For the rest of her life, Sunny ran swimming clubs, became the President of the Channel Swimming Association, and focused especially on teaching children with learning difficulties, her lucky charm, the dolphin, on all of her club emblems.
She was fiercely committed to championing swimming for all, and above all, ignoring all the voices that told her she couldn’t. There’s no better way to put it:
This girl can.
You can see Sunny’s offending swimming costume at Channel Swimming Dover, and learn more about her swims there, and you can read more about her life in First in the Fight: Twenty Women Who Made Manchester, by Helen Antrobus and Andrew Simcock
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