Swimming Lessons

Thursday, June 09, 2005


Photographic proof that I've always been this good looking.*

Before Tuesday night, I’m not sure when I last had a swimming lesson, but I’m going to take a punt and suggest that it was at least 20 years ago. Said lesson was given by a tall, lanky man called John. Other than that, we didn’t have much in common. He could swim underwater for a whole length of the 25-metre pool at the Avoniel Leisure Centre with a physical elegance that deserted him on land. I could spit water at my sister.

When I was younger still, the mentor entrusted with making sure I didn’t drown was the mother of a school friend. I imagine whole generations of children grew up feeling the same way about that woman. She was kind and caring and gentle, and you loved the fact that she was teaching you how to do something as important as swimming, but underneath all that, there was a simmering fear of, and something bordering on childish hatred for, the woman who first dared deflate one half of your bright orange water-wings.

It was all very well for her – she was on dry land. Mind you, even if she hadn’t been, the water in the learner’s pool would only have come up to her waist. We, on the other hand, poor, vertically challenged wretches that we were, having been rendered suddenly sinkable by her cavalier approach to armband deflation, had to try and make it to the other side of the pool (fully eight metres) without drowning.

She was encouraging and complimentary about our efforts but, beneath that, she was tough. Yes, you made it across without drowning, but you weren’t kicking your legs quite right. And it might be easier if you opened your goggle-protected eyes every so often to look where you’re going. And put your tongue back in your mouth even though you’re concentrating.

A few years later, I had an odd experience involving my swimming instructor’s sister. During a school trip to Holland, a nasty crazy-golf accident left me with blood pouring out of a cut in my forehead. As luck would have it, my swimming instructor’s sister was a nurse living in Amsterdam and had come to visit us that day (to see her niece). She examined my head and declared that I’d probably survive, but that I ought to have a couple of ‘plastic stitches’ just in case.

As she applied said stitches (which turned out to be not nearly as glamorous as I’d hoped for), I winced. Her hand held my head perfectly still and in it I could feel that same force her sister had dished out from the poolside. I’m not trying to be mean, but if you’d just do what I’m telling you to do this would all be so much easier.

Memories of all of these things came flooding back as my latest instructor put me through my paces in the pool two nights ago.

A tall, lithe South African triathlete, she had already been good enough to spend half an hour talking to me about how to prepare for the fast-approaching London Triathlon. She dispensed pearls of wisdom that I eagerly stored away (and wrote down later) about everything from training schedules to dietary requirements as though everyone knew about them.

Her biggest concern about my approach to the race was not how little training I have done or am doing, but that I was planning to do the swim using my most comfortable stroke – breaststroke. She pointed out that wearing a wetsuit would make my legs much more buoyant and I’d find myself struggling to get my top half high enough out of the water to breathe comfortably. “How bad can your crawl be?” she asked.

Ten minutes later, I was in the pool showing her just how bad it can be. To give her credit, she didn’t laugh at my hopeless flailing. Instead, she brought me a float designed to be held between the legs and suggested I try a couple of lengths without kicking. I was a child again – elbows on the side of the pool, looking up at a kind face telling me that “That wasn’t too bad, but maybe if you just try doing it this way instead.”

I tried a couple of lengths with the float. Breathing in became much easier, but I kept forgetting to breathe out first. After the first length, I was on the verge of hyperventilating. Again, my efforts were applauded before another drill was instigated. This one involved lying on my side with my lower arm outstretched and my upper one by my side. I was only allowed to kick my legs, and when I wanted to breathe, I had to roll over rather than whip my head out of the water.

Again, getting a breath in wasn’t too much trouble – getting it out again without getting water up my nose was a different matter. I coughed and spluttered my way back to my instructor who had one more drill for me to try. This one involved swimming like an underwater James Bond bad guy henchman – with both arms held by my side and furiously kicking my legs. Breathing again involved rolling to either side when I felt the need.

As I swam two lengths like this, that long forgotten but immediately familiar childish hatred welled up in me again. Why couldn’t I just do it the way that felt comfortable? Swimming was supposed to be fun, and this wasn’t. Why couldn’t I just go and spit water at my sister? I returned to the top of the pool to receive my commendation and await the sentence that began “But if you just…”

Instead I was met with “Right – now try swimming two lengths of crawl – just normally.”

So I did – and suddenly, without warning, I felt like I could do it. I was breathing to alternate sides with every third stroke and before I knew it I was at the other end, confidence already soaring so high that I found myself contemplating a tumble-turn (a skill I have never possessed) – fortunately, I thought better of it just in time.

I felt a great rush of gratitude to all the people who have had anything to do with teaching me how to swim over the years. Contrary to what my ego would like to think, I didn’t just pop into the world able to do it – I had to be taught. Someone had to be firm with me and make me do it a different way than the way I wanted to – the right way – the way that meant it would work.

I’m learning a lot from doing this whole thing – about sport in general, about certain sports in particular, about the people I encounter who help (and the people I encounter who don’t), and about myself. I’m learning that I’m usually far to eager to try and do things the way I want to do them, to stay within what I perceive to be my comfort zone, instead of trusting the people who know what they’re doing to teach me how to do it right. I’m learning that in the end, the instructors invariably break me down and I do it their way – and then I have these epiphanies about how much easier their way is.

Life, eh? Bloody hell.

***

* Swiss Toni, the keenest member of Team Ultimate Olympian for the London Triathlon, has been posting pictures of himself in lycra and neoprene over on his blog. He suggested I do the same ASAP, but for now, the picture above is about as close as I can get to his epic poses.

4 comments:

SwissToni said...

oh great. thanks for the link.

John said...

You love it.
We all know you love it.

Statue John said...

I think i may well be free to support team Ultimate Olympian for the triathlon now....if so i will sort out the appropriate projection equipment and project a 50 foot SwissLycra onto Canary Wharf.

A little SwissLycra merchandise store with T-shirts, mugs, plates and fridge magnets is also being prepared ;)

Jennifer said...

Congrats on the job well done...and I loved the part about "spitting water at my sister"...