Almost a year ago I began to learn to swim properly. I say properly because until that point, although able to stay afloat on my back fairly indefinitely or swim around using a slightly awkward breaststroke, I had never mastered a crawl with correct breathing technique, and to be honest my water confidence wasn’t that great.
I only really discovered this to be an issue when I attempted surfing for the first time, the previous summer. It was a mess… the waves were too big and choppy, I couldn’t keep the board straight and ended up exhausted, freezing and bruised, and worst of all deeply frustrated. On a second attempt I lost my nerve. Being of a competitive nature it was exasperating to be thwarted again. (I hate anything beating me!) So last year I decided that at 44 it was high time I learned to swim properly, and signed myself up for a one-to-one lesson at the local pool to get me started.
As a child the only swimming lessons I experienced were at Primary School and pretty basic as I remember. They took place in our little outdoor school pool which was chilly to say the least. The main concern was not so much the swimming as the avoidance of turning hypothermic.
…the waves were too big and choppy, I couldn’t keep the board straight and ended up exhausted, freezing and bruised, and worst of all deeply frustrated.
At my adult lesson, the friendly, no-nonsense instructor pretty much laughed at my technique when I tried to demonstrate my best crawl. “Ok” she sighed, “We’re going to have to take it right back to basics.” And so began the float assisted training of arms and legs, neither of which wanted to oblige, but the hardest thing I never knew I couldn’t do was the breathing. I felt panicky and out of breath really quickly. My breath stuck in my throat. It was a steep learning curve. My swim instructor suggested I took away my new techniques and go practice until I mastered the breathing aspect. So I did, every week for months. And sure enough gradually it came good.
I still felt clumsy and uncoordinated in the water, and thought I must look like a spider in a bath. But progress was being made. Then one day my partner came swimming with me. As an ex-triathlete (and annoyingly good surfer) with plenty of swim coaching under his belt I was undeniably nervous about demonstrating my ragged technique, but was also in need of direction so I braved a couple of lengths under his critical eye.
To my genuine amazement he reassured me that my technique was fine, in fact words like ‘natural’ and ‘graceful’ issued forth! Initially I assumed he must be flattering me to boost my confidence, but he assured me that was not the case. Either way, from that point on I made the decision to stop thinking of myself as a terrible swimmer and began to think graceful, gliding, empowering thoughts as I swam my ups and downs. And almost immediately my breathing technique improved with my mindset.
Long story short, 9 months on I am proud to say I can swim 30 lengths at a slow, (graceful?!) crawl. I am still working on the fitness and mental aspects, I take short breaks every couple of lengths. I’d like to be one of those swimmers who glides effortlessly up and down without stopping. I find that if I focus too much on the breathing I start to feel breathless very easily. For me it’s the mental battle that’s the interesting challenge. I’m not at all bothered about becoming a super-fast or super-fit swimmer. But I’ve achieved one of the goals I set for myself at the beginning of the 2018 and that makes me feel pretty good.
I am adding ‘Strong swimming ability’ to my parenting list of ‘Essential Life Skills Which The Kids Need To Master’. (Alongside good table manners, good social skills and being able to sleep under a tarp and catch, gut and cook their own fish.)
So coming back to the kids… why is learning to swim early on so important? There are the obvious safety benefits, not to mention the fact it could save your life! But speaking as an adult who didn’t have lessons (no complaint there btw) it can be hard to find your confidence in the water when you are older. As a youngster your mind (and body) are still so flexible; learning a new skill comes relatively easily. Later in life it requires more courage and determination, (and time!) and reaching that level of natural ease in the water is more of a challenge. This knocks on to so many great activities. Surfing, wakeboarding, wild swimming, triathlons, canoeing, diving, snorkelling, canyoning… all of these adventurous pastimes require a good degree of water confidence. Some require that you can swim strongly.
My own kids have had lessons on and off. Both are far more confident in the water than I ever was at their age. Yet they both have room for considerable improvement, and I would like them to continue with lessons again soon, despite the fact they can both ‘swim’. Because there’s swimming (as in staying afloat) then there’s swimming strongly and confidently, so that if a situation required it, you’d have a good chance of getting out of trouble. The two levels are some distance apart, I know from experience. So looking forward I am adding ‘Strong swimming ability’ to my parenting list of ‘Essential Life Skills Which The Kids Need To Master’. (Alongside good table manners, good social skills and being able to sleep under a tarp and catch, gut and cook their own fish.)
For my own part there is another aspect at work here. Each time we take on a challenge, whether it be learning a new skill, reaching for some kind of target or conquering a fear, we are expanding our horizons in all directions, living life in it’s fullness. I enjoy taking on these challenges. We feel good because each time we ignore our self imposed limitations and push a little further, we are rewarded with an increased inner strength and vitality, a self belief that tells us “I can do pretty much anything I set my mind to.” There is a journey of some kind involved, and we may not succeed, but we grow from each of these experiences, and we can choose to keep having them, to keep growing, no matter what age we are.
So back to the surfing… I’ll keep you posted on that. I’ve not quit yet. This year I’m going to try a more genteel approach… warm west coast of France in summer, start shallow, catch the baby waves whilst building confidence. Just to stand upright on that board for a few moments… elegance or grace won’t come into it, but a great sense of achievement will, for sure.
Each time we take on a challenge, whether it be learning a new skill, reaching for some kind of target or conquering a fear, we are expanding our horizons in all directions, living life in it’s fullness.