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The Women's Sports Alliance


Sarah Jackson on ‘chatting 💩’ and surfing through sewage

Sarah Jackson has walked through excrement, tolerated chemical burns, rashes, countless upset stomachs and an autoimmune infection which saw her hospitalised - all in pursuit of her dream to become a world champion in her sport.

Your first though may well be ‘Why would she do this?’ A worthy question, but perhaps a more poignant one would be ‘Why has she HAD to do this?’

In short, according to the Environment Agency (EA) between 2016-2021 there was a 2,553% increase in the number of hours water companies in the UK dumped raw untreated sewage into the sea – amounting to an astounding 9.4m hours.

It has forced Sarah to take dramatic action and swap the UK for Tenerife in the hope of finding water which won’t leave her “fearful” of consuming toxic pollutants each time she goes out to train.

“When I walk along the beach you can feel it between your toes and it’s like this sludge which you try to convince yourself is just mud,” she tells the WSA.

“But then you look down, see toilet paper, sanitary products and then there’s the smell too, so you realise that everything flushed down the toilet is ending up here on the beach.”

Image courtesy of PhotoMedano

Sarah recalls discovering the sport as a child and revelling in the fact she had discovered something she was better at than her older brother.

“The competitive little sister that I was absolutely loved it and I was hooked,” she recalls.

These were more “innocent” times when she would race in clear and clean lakes across the North West of England without any concerns about what she was competing in.

Within a few years she became more aware of the pollution issue, after suffering regular stomach upsets; although at that stage it was mainly after spending time at sea.

“There were some days where you would turn up at the beach to go training and you can smell the sewage and it was disgusting, but what are you going to do?” she states.

“You've driven an hour and a half to get there, everyone else is training you've got to try.

“My Mum would just then let me go but be like ‘don't try not to take in any water’ and then she’d give me a can of Coke afterwards.”

Whether fizzy drinks do in fact help ‘kill off some bugs’ is open to debate, but regardless of whether they do reduce risks, they certainly will not save you from superbugs or chemicals.

Sarah was 14 when she took to inland waters in Oxford.

“Sometimes you’ll get a stomach bug and in a couple of days you'll be fine, but that was like 12 weeks on and off like became like a circular infection that just kept coming back,” she recalls.

“It ended up putting me in hospital and I had an autoimmune condition.

“That comes from there being a high level of antibiotics and medication that ends up in sewage, which can lead to antibiotic resistance and that’s super scary!”

In 2020 Sarah moved to the south coast and Hailing Island due to its reputation as an excellent location for windsurfing.

After I got there and started posting (on social media) about it everyone was like ‘well, you do know that there's a sewage plant? And every time it rains they’re going to pump sewage?’ and I had no idea,” she tells the Women’s Sports Alliance.

“As an international athlete getting stomach bugs isn’t okay because you lose a couple of kilos of weight and you’re off the water for a few days.

“But there are times when you come out of the water after 15-20 minutes and your eyes are bloodshot red, like if you’re abroad and you’ve been in the sun for five hours.

“That shouldn’t be happening in the middle of winter from the English Channel and it’s all because of the high volume of chemicals and pollution in water which also lead to rashes on your skin too.”

This winter Sarah decided she had simply endured enough and relocated to Tenerife, the largest of Spain’s Canary Islands off the West African coast.

“I put up with this (pollution and illness) because I thought I didn't have an option, but I've realised that that's not something we should have to put up with, hence the move,” she says.

“I'm in a super privileged position where I can go elsewhere, even though I’m still finding it harder than I thought I would to find clean water, but there's so many people that can't move and they shouldn't have to suffer with this level of pollution!”

The two-time World Championship silver medallists wants to see action, that is why she has partnered with the Marine Conservation Society and chosen to speak out about her experiences.

“I am super passionate about this topic, as are a lot of my friends, but we aren't in the position to actually make the change,” she admits.

“I feel like working with them (Marine Conservation Society) and seeing what they're trying to do is a much more direct approach that tries to put forward legislation to change the laws.

“The current situation with the government is like they've got to make a change by 2050 which is just absurd that for the next 27 years they can carry on as is.”

“Remember stomach bugs can be an inconvenience but we don't know what's going to happen 10 years down the line and what the implications are going to be for our health in the future as well.

“The Marine Conservation Society have a bigger voice than me and can keep pushing this forward and it’s so important to be working on this every single day.”

You can follow Sarah’s journey – as an elite windsurfer and in her new role as an environmental activist – via her Insta feed and website.

Sarah is currently undergoing rehab work after breaking a bone and damaging ligaments in her foot in November.

Not that the injuries stopped her competing.

“It happened a week before the World Cup, but I went to Japan anyway, competed and then came home and dealt with consequences,” she says while laughing.

“It's been like nearly three months, and I just want to go went surfing.”

The 24-year-old finished 12th in Japan – an impressive result given the extent of her injuries.

She is keen to return to full fitness though and pursue her career goal of one day becoming the sport’s outright World Champion.

“Winning my first ever World Cup race (in Israel, in 2021) was so much fun as I was racing against all the girls who were like my childhood heroes, she recalls.

“To turn and watch them come over the finish behind me was just incredible and a; ‘wow, in this moment at this time you were the best in the world’ feeling which really spurred me on to carry on with a professional career.”

“My experiences (with pollution) mean my relationship with the water has changed, but I still love this sport and my ultimate dream is to be world champion.”

You can follow Sarah’s journey – as an elite windsurfer and in her new role as an environmental activist – via her Insta feed and website.


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