Wild swimming helping physical and mental health

EVEN the most ardent swimmers might baulk at taking a dip in a river in mid-winter – but this is a regular outing for a local cancer survivor.

Francesco Zitiello swims in the Wey, as well as running and cycling triathlon distances.

Francesco Zitiello and fiancée Esther Ranoli, with the bike he uses for his triathlon-style rides, by the River Wey
Pictures by Terry Habgood

Francesco, who lives near Byfleet, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer 10 years ago and has since had battles with his fitness and weight while undergoing treatment.

The 44-year-old butcher is in remission from the disease and year-round wild swimming has become part of his routine for maintaining his physical and mental health.

“After I got the cancer diagnosis, I lost weight and went down to six stone 12 pounds and then up to 19 stone,” he said. “It was less than a year between the two extremes of weight. I decided I had to take time off and get fit to help me recover.”

Francesco swimming in the middle of the River Wey

Following an operation to remove his thyroid gland seven years ago, he started running and built up to being able to manage 10 kilometres. He then increased his training and ran half-marathons, around 13 miles, 20 kilometres.

He has completed the Surrey Half several times, as well as the Windsor and Hampton Court half marathons, competed in a range of 10k races and entered Tough Mudder endurance events that involve obstacle courses up to 12 miles long.

“I raised money for cancer charities,” said Francesco, who recently got a job with Bevans butchers shop at Effingham after a period of being out of work.

“All my achievements in events the last five years have been to improve my health, all self-motivated. I had no support from family or friends through my illnesses and hard times. Keeping busy training kept me mentally strong and focused.”

“I was still on the cuddly side, so I decided to take on Olympic-style triathlon cycling and running too, just for myself.”

Francesco with his collection of medals for taking part in running and Tough Mudder events

His favourite outdoor swimming spot is the River Wey between Papercourt Lock at Ripley and the bridge near Newark Priory. He leaves his car by the bridge, runs to Papercourt and then takes 20 minutes to swim back.

He has been swimming outdoors all-year round and wears a wetsuit to help him withstand the winter cold. “I have been in when the air temperature has been minus two,” he added. “It just makes me feel good.”

The water temperature was three degrees when News & Mail photographer Terry Habgood arrived at the bridge to meet Francesco and his main cheerleader, fiancée Esther Ranoli. Despite the chilly weather, another man was already swimming in the river.

Joe Matthews, 35, from Bookham, said he has been wild swimming for around five years.

“I do it mainly for my health and keeping fit, but also to get out of the house for my exercise during lockdown,” added Joe, who is the IT director at St Paul’s School in Hammersmith.

He previously swam in Buckland Park Lake, a flooded sand quarry near Reigate. COVID-19 restrictions have reduced the opening times there but he has discovered the delights of the River Wey as an alternative.

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