Waterbiography: a history of my swimming life, part two

At the start of writing this blog I did my pool rules and some people called me a Nazi. It was water off a laminated Nazi's back. The last rule I wrote was, "Be nice to the people doing head-up breaststroke. That might be you one day." The feeling was that I was demeaning the head-up breaststroker but the truth is, head-up breaststrokers are very close to my heart. Until seven years ago, I was one.

Seven years ago I would never have classified myself as a swimmer. Sure, I'd been swimming in my own fashion all my life but to me it was the same as singing: just something I did, without it being a Significant Label. (I never understand when contestants on TV singing competitions say, "I've been singing since I was three." ALL children sing. It's more rare to find a child who occasionally shuts up.) I would no more have called myself a singer than I would a swimmer – I did both badly. It never occurred to me that things could be any different.

Being in the school playground again got me back in the water in a more dedicated fashion. After drop-off, a few friends would regularly go to Tooting Bec lido; but these were good swimmers, fast swimmers – the girls who always got picked. I was never one of those girls but one day, when one of them said patiently and for the umpteenth time, "Do you want to come?", I thought, why not? What's to stop me? So I went, and poddled up and down the long length (91m) doing my head-up breaststroke, grinning at everyone who came by, so glorious did it feel. The length was so long that I stopped at each end for a good rest and a bun. At that point, I didn't wear goggles – my face is wrong for regular goggles and I didn't know there were sorts. But I knew I liked it. I really liked it. I liked the freedom. I liked being in the middle of the water and nobody asking anything of me. And watching other people swim properly, I knew I wanted to be in that gang. This time, I picked myself.

Then I found big goggles for which I had the right face, and I started to put this right face in the water like normal swimmers, learning how by dint of watching. I thought maybe I could learn front crawl too through that "watching" technique, thought maybe I could learn it just by being in the water with good swimmers, like homeopathic swimming lessons. But in this instance [holds your gaze] homeopathy didn't work. It just would. Not. Stick. It was the breathing that got me every time. And the legs, and arms. I couldn't co-ordinate. So when the opportunity arose (OK, when I created the opportunity) to go on an "improvers" holiday I grabbed it with both sun-spotted hands.

A week in Greece with two expert teachers was a turning point, not least because it was the first time I left my kids and partner at home to go away. It felt better "deserting them", somehow, when I was off to learn something. At the start of the lessons we were asked what our goals were, and mine was to front crawl a length of the lido. While some people were finessing minor points, others including were at a fairly basic, even nonexistent level. I'd envisaged becoming an immediate expert, but the reality was more painful, slower. At the end of a week practising endlessly in pool and sea, counting and chanting in my head, trying to get my arms and legs and lungs to work how I wanted them to, I started to think I might get it one day. It was within my reach (roll, relax). On the final day we swam bay to bay, and I front crawled some of it. I concentrated hard every second of the way and was so far from instinctive, but I was happy. It felt like an achievement. I went home with a little nugget of unexpressed belief that I might actually front crawl that length one day.

Back at the lido I told my friend Al, a really good swimmer who was Channel-training at the time, what my goal was. He didn't laugh or mock, he gave me a pool buoy and said, try it. Go on. I'm here.

So I tried it. OK, I had a pool buoy shoved between my legs, and if you want to call that cheating feel free, I don't care. I did it. Halfway along, Al said "keep going", so I did. He was at the deep end when I got there, cheering. It felt fantastic. I'd done it. I could have cried. (I may have cried.) Thank you, Al.

The moral, if there has to be one, is that if I can, you can too (if you want to). Try lessons; if you can, find an Al. I'm an uncoordinated, slow, late learner but I love having a new skill. Since that first length, I've practised and practised and practised. I've poddled on and on and on. I train and learn and listen and still hope a little bit that by being in the water with fast people, I'll get faster. I can't for the life of me work out why I'm not. But I don't really care. I have sussed one thing: I'm now officially proper serious about swimming because when I'm swimming, even slowly, I'm not standing on the periphery of life, I'm absolutely at the heart of it. Do join me.

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.


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