Caris Hedd-Bowen is making a name for herself in the world of swimming and some of you may have seen her featured on our social media when she coached some open water sessions for us last year. Five years ago, Caris couldn’t swim: these days she can call herself a swim champion, swim coach, swim school owner and soon to be triathlete. This is Caris’ story…
Born in Carmarthen in South Wales, Caris’ family moved to Burry Port when she was a baby. The middle child of three, Caris describes her childhood self as dramatic, crazy and ambitious with a vivid imagination and a child who always wanted to learn new things.
She was a good pupil whilst at primary but struggled in secondary school as she wasn’t academic. She was one of the popular kids, liked by everyone and the one that stood up to bullies but in her own words, she rebelled as she didn’t understand the way in which she was taught. Every pupil was taught the same way, which didn’t suit her.
Caris was good at sport and always looked forward to sports day because she knew she was going to win. She participated in a number of sports: she did ballet for eleven years, attending the Royal School of Dance and then went on to play netball. She was also good at cross country running but didn’t enjoy it.
Caris’ first experience of swimming was when her class went to the local pool for lessons. Again, all pupils were taught in the same way and by their class teachers who weren’t swim coaches, so she became frustrated. That, mixed with being in an unfamiliar environment, meant those lessons were an extremely negative experience which left Caris petrified of swimming and with a real phobia of the tiled octopus on the floor of the baby pool. When talking about her experience, she describes how she used to swim over the other children so that the octopus would eat them first. She didn’t set foot in a pool again for almost twenty years.
Her school days ended early when she became Mum to Travis but her determination to provide for her son saw her return to college where she studied childcare and then beauty before Finley came along 2 years later. Even though she was young, Caris was a natural Mum from the start and still credits her sons as being the most important people in her life.
Caris’ life changed in 2013 when, at the age of 21, she was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma, a “teenage” cancer most common in 15-25 year olds. She had been so unwell for some time that in her words, her diagnosis was a relief as she finally knew what was wrong and what treatment was needed. That treatment involved 8 months of chemotherapy every other Friday and travelling to the Heath Hospital in Cardiff for regular scans.
Throughout her illness, Caris naturally questioned why her? None of her friends or family had ever been diagnosed with cancer. On her lowest day, she wanted to take her Huskamute dog for a walk, but she was unable to reach the first lamppost and she headed home defeated. That’s the day she set her first goal: to reach that first lamppost. Mentally she wanted to fight and achieve, but physically her body couldn’t manage. However, with commitment, she finally reached that first lamppost so she challenged herself to reach the next one and she started to set herself further goals and challenges. She knew she had to find the strength to fight and survive, to be a mother to her sons.
Before her illness, Caris admits that she had lost her way. She was often worried and she was self-conscious when it came to her image, always wearing make-up and false eyelashes and living for the weekends. As hard as she tried to hold on to her femininity during her illness, chemotherapy took her identity away. She suffered all of the main side effects: she lost her hair, eyelashes and eyebrows, had horrific mouth ulcers and was constantly sick due to the cocktail of drugs. High doses of steroids also caused her to gain weight. Caris documented her chemotherapy journey on social media and with a weekly blog in her local paper.
Caris’ treatment was successful and she was finally given the all clear. At that point, she made the decision to rebuild her life. After not making the most of her health before her illness and not being in control of her body during treatment, Caris now realised that her health was her responsibility and she vowed to do everything in her power to become healthy in mind and body.
Step one was her nutrition. She learnt how to fuel her body, that what she ate was vital. She learnt about the effects of food on her body, how different foods could benefit her while others may make her ill. She also realised she needed to move more and become more active now that she could move her body. From walking to lampposts, Caris started running and one day she ended up outside a local gym.
The owner of that gym, Dave Morgan, is someone Caris credits with being a major influence on her life after cancer. A former Army Physical Trainer, Dave ran bootcamp style sessions. Caris describes her first session as one of the hardest mental and physical things she has done but she loved it and continued to attend. She progressed to working alongside Dave, taking abs sessions at the end of classes and then instructing at those bootcamp sessions herself, not only in Burry Port but also at retreats abroad. While attending Dave’s gym, Caris fell in love with weight training which she says helped her massively during her first five years of remission. Lifting heavy weights reminded her of her mental strength. She spent four hours a day in the gym, often in pain but in her words, feeling comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Five years later, another local gym offered her the position of Assistant Manager and it was there that she qualified as a Personal Trainer. She continued her weight training and she celebrated five years of remission by competing in a bodybuilding show. Caris thought that competing would be the ultimate feeling and achievement, but it left her realising that the industry was all about how people look. She had spent so much time dieting, weighing and tracking food, looking at the scales and sending her coach weekly physique photos. The results on her physique were amazing but it highlighted the lack of consideration of mental health. Whilst Caris continued weight training, she stepped away from competitive bodybuilding.
As if life wasn’t busy enough, Caris has been involved in so many other things. When she took her sons rugby training, while other parents would stand on the sidelines and chat, Caris would run around and entertain the siblings of the children who were playing. She was younger than the other Mums and she loved being active. As a result, she qualified as a Level 2 Rugby Coach and stepped in to coach Burry Port RFC. She also qualified as a Level 2 Welsh Rugby Union Referee and became the only female Referee in the Scarlets region, overseeing junior, men’s and women’s games. Even after her sons stopped playing rugby, Caris continued to coach and referee. She also played rugby herself and was part of the Burry Port Ladies Team who were the first female side to play on the new Scarlets rugby pitch in Llanelli. However, she realised that the damage the pain and impact was doing to her body couldn’t continue and she stopped playing after a short time.
She began studying for a degree in Sports Coaching and Performance. She qualified as a coach in approximately fifteen different sports during those studies but unfortunately, life outside of University with challenges and grief to face, meant she didn’t complete her course.
She undertook a 400 mile bike ride during her first year in remission which started her love of cycling and in true Caris style, she even completed a Race For Life during her chemotherapy treatment!
But Caris needed a new challenge and while thinking about the hardest things she could put herself through, Ironman came to mind and her triathlon journey began. But there was one rather large stumbling block…..Caris couldn’t swim. She hadn’t set foot in a swimming pool since her school days, but she knew she would have to learn to achieve her Ironman dream.
Her first foray into water was accidental. She had booked to attend a yoga class with friends but when she got there, it was cancelled. Her friends convinced her to head to the beach with them to play in the sea. Part of her wanted to say no because she was scared of water, but new reformed Caris said yes and she hasn’t stopped saying yes since! She had put on a full face of make-up to go to yoga class and felt self-conscious taking it off at the beach. On that first day, she entered the sea with friends and stayed within her depth. She didn’t know what to expect so had no expectations, but she gained so much that day. In the short time she spent in the sea, she didn’t care how she looked and felt a sense of happiness.
She made a pact with her friends, to meet at the sea twice each day throughout the summer. The time she would previously have spent putting on make-up, Caris now spent cycling to the beach. Evenings previously spent watching television were now spent at the beach with friends. Caris and her friends achieved their challenge of two dips a day that summer and she describes it as her best summer ever. The feeling of being in open water took her troubles and worries away. As the group headed into winter, members started to drop out as water temperatures dropped but Caris loved it so much mentally and physically, that she carried on dipping throughout the winter, remaining in a bathing costume and not wearing a wetsuit. If tide times or conditions weren’t favourable, Caris headed to North Dock in Llanelli and sat in the water.
But sitting in the water wasn’t enough any longer, Caris wanted to move in the water and at the age of 28 she learnt to swim. She initially sought coaching but found it difficult to understand the language used and the style of coaching so she created a goal, to teach herself. She used videos as reference, deconstructed front crawl technique and adapted it to a way she understood. She was then able to adapt to different types of water and environments. Then Covid and lockdown hit…
While most athletes hung up their wetsuits and running shoes, Caris contacted female specific triathlon coach Celia Boothman at Love the Rain Coaching and that’s where she got to work transforming herself from bodybuilder to triathlete. She credits Celia with helping her fall in love with triathlon by writing her training plans but again, Caris had to adapt everything she was being told into a language and style that she understood. To enhance her training, Caris joined a local triathlon club where she was asked to lead open water swim sessions. She built a community of swimmers with 30-40 turning up for her sessions and she ended up having to deliver safety briefings herself before swims. She was still learning herself at that time so she asked if there were coaching courses she could undertake via the club. Unfortunately, she was told that wasn’t an option, so she made the decision to invest in them herself and her official coaching journey started.
After qualifying as an open water swim coach, Caris made the decision to start her own swim school and Swim Zone was born in July 2021. The business has gone from strength to strength and offers group sessions and individual lessons to anyone from non-swimmers to experienced swimmers and triathletes. Caris continued to swim herself and started entering races, coming second skins swimmer in her first ever event, a 5k lake swim, and third skins swimmer in her second event, a 4.5km swim. She also came in first skins swimmer and second swimmer overall at the Cool Mile in Tal Y Llyn lake.
While attending the Portishead Popsicle in winter 2021, Caris saw two people wearing Team GB Ice Swimmers kit and that stirred something in her, she wants to wear that kit one day. She started training for the Ice Mile, which will involve swimming one mile in skins in a water temperature of under 5 degrees, emanating good friend and ice swim buddy, Merthyr Mermaid Cath Pendleton, who achieved the feat in 2020. Caris has also continues to take part in charity swims including the recent Solva Swim where was part of a team of cancer survivors who all learnt to swim during their remission. They swam to raise funds for the Velindre Cancer Centre and Caris was proud to share the open water that day with fellow coach and friend Dave Tonge.
Building up Swim Zone took up most of her time, so her own triathlon training was put on hold, but not any longer…
2023 will also see Caris act as support athlete for Tina Evans who is aiming to be the first Para athlete to race in our Super Series.