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Sophie Hellyer


Next up in our series of Pearly Queen interviews, we spoke with cold water swim coach, surfer, activist and mum, Sophie Hellyer.

Sophie shares what made her become an activist, the beauty of cold-water swimming in a female community and how she defines sustainability.





Having started out as a champion surfer and model, what brought you to where you are now?

I surfed competitively from age 15 for about a decade, and during that time I was lucky to travel a lot. I remember being in the Maldives, and thinking the beaches looked postcard perfect, but when you got close they were absolutely covered in washed up plastic. But this problem wasn’t unique to the Maldives, and I began to see the tangible effects of human pollution everywhere. I even spent a month in hospital after getting sewage in my lung surfing at home and had to have a lung operation. The ocean has always been my playground so it made sense that I do everything I can to protect it and promote its wellbeing. I’d also always felt the inequalities of being a woman in the surf industry - typically a male dominated industry - likewise the injustices of being working class in a very middle-class sport. I just didn’t have the vocabulary to explain it back then. I guess through my experiences I found feminism and environmentalism, and in turn activism became a part of my career. Whether writing, producing, being an influencer, or running wild swimming retreats, I try to incorporate an awareness of the political issues that are affecting us and make space for conversations around them. After all, it’s all political.



You created the Rise Fierce collective, a cold-water community that empowers women through wild swimming and kinship. What inspired you to create this community? What do you think makes female communities so powerful?"

Rise Fierce created itself, really. I began cold-water swimming with some friends about a decade ago, and we were sharing our swims online. People started messaging me saying I’d inspired them to take the plunge, and it was obvious how transformative a few minutes bobbing around in cold water with some other women was for people's wellbeing. There is something really magic about being immersed in nature, with your community, and also accomplishing the challenge of a cold January swim is a very empowering feeling.

 

 

How do you balance your roles as a mother, influencer and activist?

They have not been evenly balanced recently! My little boy is only 2, and I’m so aware that he is only small for a blink of an eye, so being with him is my priority at the moment. At the same time, I want him to inherit an ocean he can still play in, which under our current government doesn’t look likely whilst they continue to pump raw sewage into all our waterways. So I do try to stay politically engaged and vocal about the things that I think are important. It’s the general election this week and I’m passionately trying to ensure everyone I know is going to vote!



     

    Your activism work crosses ocean pollution, sustainability and ethical fashion. Can you tell us more about why fashion is part of the problem?

    Approximately 20% of global freshwater pollution is caused by the fashion industry, and fashion accounts for about 30% of the micro plastics in the sea. Research shows that 75% of sea creatures now have micro plastics inside them, and to be honest I’m surprised that stat isn’t higher. If I sit on a beach anywhere in the world I can almost guarantee I can sift through the sand and find micro plastics. The tangible effects are obvious.

    Surfing itself is a huge part of the problem too, most wetsuits are made from Neoprene, aka Chloroprene, a toxic and carcinogenic chemical. The only chloroprene factory in the US is located in “Cancer Alley”, a corridor of land that runs along the banks of the Mississippi where over 150 petrochemical factories are, many of which produce things like Polyester for clothes. The community living in the shadow of Cancer Alley has by far the highest cancer risk in the US – 50 TIMES the national average. We are literally pouring toxic chemicals into the waterways in the name of fashion, and it’s killing us. Once you know this stuff you can’t just ignore it.

     

    "For our shoot you wore some pieces from our collection. What are your favourite pieces from the MOP collection and why?"

    My favourite pieces? Are you ready for a long list?! Obsessed with the Kirsty Champagne jumper, and the Darby and Dani grey sweatshirts. I love how easy they are to wear everyday but can really elevate a simple look. Also in love with the Courtney black top, the Tencel™ was so soft and beautiful. I think I’m going to be adding this piece to my wardrobe before it sells out. Honestly though, the fit and the fabrics are a total dream, there’s nothing in the collection I don’t like.

    "How do you define sustainability?"

    To me sustainability means prioritising the future. In my life and my work, this means doing as little damage as possible to the oceans which have always been my playground. I want to ensure that future generations - including my two year old son - are able to enjoy the sea. But these days our waters are so polluted with sewage output it feels almost like the ocean is a no-go zone. Our local beach has had over 20 sewage alerts this year already. We have to do everything we can to change that.

     



    "What is your pearl of wisdom?"

    Breathwork is one of the most powerful and accessible tools we have to transform our mental and emotional state. Simply extending our exhale can help us move from a state of stress into relaxation. I think that’s an important tool when you’re spending time working on climate, political or feminist action as it can be pretty anxiety-inducing work.

    "How can everyone find their own place in the environmental movement?"

    I like the idea of the climate action venn diagram, ask yourself 1) What brings you joy? 2) What are you good at? 3) What is the work that needs doing?? If you can find something that hits all three, bingo – that’s your niche. Swimming brings me joy, I’m good at introducing women to the water in a safe and fun way, and the oceans need protecting. And voilá my little feminist, environmental movement Rise Fierce was born.

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