swimmers stories

John P. - The triumpt and Joy of overcoming fear and learning to swim

Today, I can finally swim. Not quickly, and not great distances. But I can swim up and down a pool without exhausting or embarrassing myself; and can stay afloat in the sea whilst holding on to one of the kids. For most adults this is not a cause for comment. But for me, who was until recently absolutely terrified of even putting my head underwater, it is a triumph and a joy.

I have always been someone who disliked and was scared of water. As a child I made no attempt to learn to swim, preferring ball sports or books. As an adult I have been gripped by a fear of the sea and swimming pools. However, I now have two young children and (I hear my wife’s chidings in my ear even now) taking your kids swimming is something all dads should be able to do. Yet I was someone who couldn’t have rescued a child struggling in five feet of water. So through gritted teeth, and having just turned forty, I booked some lessons through the internet.

My first course of lessons was a disaster. The initial instructor was from a well-known, London-based swimming company. Not one of their longer term employees, if I had to guess. He was a gaunt East European with limited English and I dare say he was as miserable giving me swimming lessons as I was at taking them. On the first lesson, I must have choked on water at least a dozen times. On the second lesson he tried to teach me backstroke because I shut my eyes steadfastly during my attempts at front crawl. On the third lesson I threw up in the pool, having swallowed half a pint of warm, heavily chlorinated water. Frowning, he discretely shovelled the vomit on to the already filthy edge of the pool. On the fourth lesson, my benevolent torturer had been unexpectedly replaced by an equally severe Czech woman. Only halfway through my final lesson, my eyes now red from the chlorine, she ventured “eet iz better vith goggles, yes?” But that was my last lesson. I had come to loath swimming pools.

Nevertheless, six months later, I tried again, because I knew it was only a matter of time before the kids would want to play in the water with me. I went for a swimming assessment at a pool near my office, which was run by a small, smiling, Irish woman called Orla. She did not, as I had expected, immediately correct my desperate, frenetic doggy paddle. I tried on several pairs of goggles she had brought along. With all the alacrity of a human cafetiere, I managed to put my face into the water. It was a start. I resolved to give swimming another go, despite the fact that the thought of water still brought me out in a cold sweat at night.

And then a strange thing happened: I found myself enjoying the lessons. We worked on water confidence (I can still remember being coaxed into smiling whilst I breathed under water). I would catch and throw frisbees at the bottom of the pool. I learned to glide, to stand up cleanly in water, to kick, to rotate. In between the weekly lessons I would snatch half an hour every few days where I would sneak out of the office and jump into the pool to practise my latest drills. I would try out my front crawl technique with my arms in unlit corners the office when no one was looking, for fear that I looked like some ostentatious tosser showing off their martial arts. At a time when my job was stressful and crowded, I regarded the swimming lessons as a haven, both physically and mentally. I was sleeping better on the days when I had lessons.

Yes, I still occasionally swallowed a mouthful of water; but the longstanding feeling of terror had vanished altogether. Well before I could really swim, I had learned to enjoy playing about in the water, diving with the kids, trying to emulate their hand stands and somersaults.

After a year or so I could probably have stopped the lessons altogether, but by then I had set myself new targets. I no longer wanted to be good enough to look after the kids and to swim a few lengths; I wanted to be a genuinely decent swimmer. Maybe not someone who could swim for miles, but certainly someone who could move easily through the water without becoming exhausted after fifty metres. At each lesson I would pick up a few new techniques to work on: maybe pulling earlier with my arms, or slowing down my kick, or humming when I breathed (this last one has stayed with me ever since, and I sometimes wonder if I sound like a Tibetan monk as I make my way up and down the lane). Occasionally my swimming would go backwards, as an fault in my swimming was dismantled, only to move forwards more rapidly once we had correct my fault. Always persisting though, was the sense of relaxation and well-being in the water, the heavy sleep following swimming, and the complete lack of any strain or stress on any of my joints.

Taking the kids swimming was no longer a chore. The pleasure and pride I felt at showing my daughter how to do a tumble turn recently was immense. The fact that she did it on the first attempt, whilst I had taken twenty goes to get one right, was not lost on me. I am deeply thankful that I learned to swim before they had reached an age when I could not possibly keep pace.

I swam in the sea for the first time this year. Really swimming, along the shoreline, without lanes and walls, with fish darting about underneath me, being rocked by waves, appreciating the added buoyancy offered by the salty water. The sense of not having to stop for lack of air, of being able to go on for as long as I liked, was intoxicating. That holiday remains the most wonderful I can remember.

If I were offering advice to an adult who wanted to learn to swim, I would say this: don’t expect to be able to swim in a few weeks; enjoy it, and if you don’t feel you are enjoying it, consider whether you have the right instructor; and practise, practise. But above all, I realise that where once I believed that learning to swim would conquer my fear of water, looking back I realise that learning to love water came long before I could really swim, and was a necessary first step.

My thanks to Orla and Nick at Immerse.