That's a bold name. What's so miraculous about it?
In short, it teaches you not to be afraid of the water. Which is difficult when you think about it, because instinctively and for good reason we're afraid of drowning.
After all these lessons I'd have thought you'd be fearless by now …
Funnily enough, I'm not. I do have to psych myself up to climb into the water, though I am getting used to it. This method starts at the very very very beginning, before you even start to put together the building blocks of strokes, and concentrates on teaching you to be confident and safe in the water first.
Sounds like it makes sense. Who came up with the idea?
It was created by M Ellen (Melon) Dash, an American competitive swimmer. She was teaching undergraduate learners at Keene State College in New Hampshire in the 1970s and gave them instructions on how to do flutter kick. When they all stared at her, terrified, she realised that it was pointless telling people what to do with their arms and legs when they were afraid they might not live. She worked out a way to get people over their fears first.
How does it work?
The founding principle is that when you feel completely comfortable you're in the best condition to learn. You're present in your body and not scared. There are five stages – at ease, cold feet, fluttery tummy, heart in your mouth, and panic. These are called the Five Circles, and the idea is that you always stay in the first circle as you learn. It makes it a very gentle method that only goes as fast as you are ready to.
What happened in the lesson you had?
We started outside of the pool and Andrea and Zoe (the A and Z in the A2Z name) explained how they were going to teach us – that we had to make sure we were always in our first circle, and that we wouldn't race towards learning strokes. They emphasised that it was more important that we felt safe and trusted the water to hold us up than to be able to move through it. Learning to swim is like a Jenga tower, they said. You can build it up quite fast, but if you've not got all the blocks in place at every level the tower will eventually collapse. We got into a very shallow teaching pool, no more than a metre deep, and lovely and warm, which took away some of the shock factor about getting into water. We spent time acclimatising to the feel of the water, lowering in slowly, floating, moving our arms through the water and then playing some games knocking down diving sticks to get a feel for how the water moves.
So no actual swimming?
If you mean powering up and down the pool doing freestyle, then no, not in this first lesson. If you define swimming as being safe and confident in water, as they do, then yes. It was good to not have the pressure of having to achieve and to just be in the water. I was able to take the time to see where the tension is in my body, how relaxed I felt or not, and how the water actually feels. It made me realise how much progress I'd made in not feeling afraid, but also that I wasn't as fearless as I imagined.
Where can I have a go?
A2ZSwim operate mostly between Cheltenham and Oxford, but are planning on running courses in other parts of the country. You can take an introductory class for three hours, or check out their beginner class, which is 24 hours of classes run over eight sessions. They also run Next Step courses, 3:1 sessions, family sessions and bespoke classes.
Who's it good for?
Well in theory, everybody! Even if you feel you can swim, if you prefer not to put your face in the water they'd probably argue that you have an unaddressed fear – a missing block in your Jenga tower – that means you're not completely relaxed in the pool. I keep learning that being relaxed is the key to being able to float well and move well through the water, so it makes sense to go right back to the start and fill in the gaps. If you're absolutely terrified, this method is perfect. It's not pushy or insensitive – it's designed for people who are scared, and won't make you feel silly for being afraid.