Old or young, fit or not so fit, fast or slow, competition swimmer or keep-fit junkie, backstroker or dyed-in-the-wool-you'll-never-get-me-breastroking front crawler, everyone in our swimming club has a place. What brings us together, up to three times a week, in a none-too-salubrious overheated council-run pool in central London, is a love of the water.
Sara, who is in her 50s, is an overworked NHS employee. She's pretty much the best swimmer in our swimming club. She trains harder, and is fitter, than virtually any of the swimmers in the pool. She has three grown-up sons, all of whom belonged to swimming clubs as kids. She is slight, but has a powerful breaststroke and an efficiently smooth front crawl. She competes regularly on the masters swimming circuit and motivates and cajoles the other swimmers in our club to compete as well. She wins gold medals in age-group competitions all over the country, and at world championships. She gets so nervous before every single competition that she can work herself up into a right old lather. I wonder why and how she can put herself through the nerves all the time. She's an inspiration to me, and to swimmers half her age.
Cath is in her 60s and has swum with the club for the same amount of time as me: around 17 years. She is a Buddhist who loves to swim in the Serpentine in the winter, and in the sea. She swims in our club to keep fit. She also competes in galas and wins medals in her age group. She is a retired consultant.
Peter, an illustrator, has the most relaxed-looking backstroke you have ever seen. He looks like he might be painting long imaginary brushstrokes on the high ceiling of the pool with his arms. There is nothing stressed or forced about his stroke. Mari, 37, is a parliamentary candidate. She joined the club after going on a swimming holiday – she just wanted to keep swimming. She keeps lane three in order (lanes in clubs are organised into people with similar swim speeds). Mari, with typical political zest, encourages all lane three swimmers do an elaborate high-five ritual when they've finished a session. Neither Peter or Mari want to swim in galas or competitions. They train with the club just because.
Eduardo, an architect, left the club and the UK to move to Switzerland but still comes and swims with us when he visits London on business, bringing news of exotic training techniques learned at his Swiss swimming club. Gee has two children under five, who come and join her for a swim in the kids' pool after she's finished her session. Gee always smiles when she swims. Rad joined the club to stop moping when she'd split up with a long-term partner, and has never looked back. Jon, a cheerful American, is in finance and swam competitively at school and college. He wanted to join a masters swimming club for the camaraderie.
There's something fundamentally democratic about swimming that ensures people who wouldn't ordinarily cross paths become friends. Swimming doesn't require fancy, expensive kit. When you stuff your clothes into a locker, and stand on the drafty poolside in your swimsuit or trunks, clutching your swimming cap and goggles, you become equal to everyone else. It's a classless, ageless and egalitarian place. All that is important about someone is that their butterfly is a wonderful thing to behold but that they can't breaststroke for toffee. That's all that matters in the pool.
For a sport that is fundamentally an individual endeavour, there is something more to a swimming club than a bunch of people slogging up and down, in splendid isolation, being shouted at by a coach. Being crammed half naked into a small overheated swimming pool with your club mates, with too many people sharing a lane and swimming at speed, requires seamless cooperation from all who are present. Very quickly in a club, at any one time, you have to work out who is fastest on stroke x; who is having a good day and has lots of energy and has to go at the front and "lead the lane", and who is having a rubbish day and should be left to draft and work their frustrations out. Who should be slightly chided for being lazy and who needs extra encouragement because they really need it that day. Close physical proximity breeds closeness. Closeness breeds support.
There is the shared pain of a hard session, when everyone encourages one other when flagging ("Come on, only four more lengths to go!"). And the collective euphoria and pride when the swimming coach praises you all at the end of a session for working hard. Club mates text you to ask why you skipped that early-morning session last week, and peer pressure makes you turn up when you'd much rather be sleeping.
Sometimes when I'm swimming in a public session at a pool I get chatting at the end of the lane with a random swimmer. I ask if they have ever considered swimming with a club. They might enjoy it, I suggest. This remark is invariably met with scepticism, and often with a protest of, "Oh, I'm not fit enough, I need to get fit first." Swimming on your own can be boring and perfunctory – so why are people so resistant to joining a club? Some of my very best friends are the people I swim with. There's nowhere else that I can spend an hour and half two or three times a week with people who I don't speak to, yet who know me inside out. And I get to keep fit as well.
Want to join a swimming club?
Masters swimming in the UK is for swimmers over the age of 18. Many towns and cities have clubs – some are serious and competitive and some are more social and about keeping fit. Find the club that suits your needs best.
Most masters clubs will welcome swimmers of any age over 18, as long as they can swim a decent distance without stopping.
To find out where your nearest masters club is, ask at your local pool or search on the web. When you find one, don't be intimidated – just ask if you can go along. Try and find out whether it has a coach – if it does you are more likely to improve your technique.
If you find the first sessions hard, don't give up. Just swim as much as you can. Everyone was a beginner once upon a time. Ask for advice on technique from swimmers who look as though they are doing it right – swimmers are generally very happy to give advice and tips on how to improve your stroke.
If you're interested in competing, find a club that has several swimming sessions a week, so you have options of regular training at times that suit you. At masters competitions, swimmers compete against people in their own age group, which start at 25 years old and above. Men and women race separately.