In at the deep end
PUBLISHED: 13:06 20 January 2015 | UPDATED: 13:06 20 January 2015
Facing the big 50, Heather Harris took on the challenge of going from inept swimmer to joining the lanes of 'goggle-eyed front crawlers' at her local pool in Berkhamsted
Ducklings Three’ – that’s how far I managed as a child. And I had the badge sewn on to my industrial navy swimsuit to prove it.
This accolade was awarded to those children who could make it across the vast expanse of water that filled a width of our local swimming pool. It was achieved after a year of coaxing, cajoling and being shouted at by my frustrated parents tired of paying £10 a week for me to float around in six armbands sobbing. Once I had found – and lost – my water wings, there was no stopping me and I progressed quickly to treading water in my pyjamas and then making a float out of the bottoms. Presumably this was in case of sleepwalking near a swollen river. I never asked, because I was happy just to get another badge – Lifeguard Bronze.
I left before the Silver and Gold and perhaps this is where I went wrong because roll on 40 years and there is a gaping hole in my swimming ability, that ‘hole’ being front crawl or, to put it precisely, the combination of this particular over-arm stroke and breathing. And I am not alone. Go to any swimming pool and, ignoring the scary, goggle-eyed lane swimmers, you will spot an entire shoal of breast-strokers both of the craned neck and full make-up variety and the head-in and out bobbing brigade. I was the latter but with eyes shut due to contact lens issues.
Purely for variety, I and many others do have a sneaky attempt at front crawl (the only entertainment many lifeguards get). This involves a massive intake of breath, a frantic whirl of arms, then a total stop, feet on floor for another massive intake of breath. No multi-tasking whatsoever is involved.
And up to now that has been fine. With a looming fifth decade, I have mastered most things except applying eye liner, skiing and sudoku. All these I can accept – my ineptitude at swimming I cannot. So I decided to take the plunge and sign up for lessons. I was amazed to discover from Jo Bevil-Gahan, aquaspace manager at Sportspace, that there are currently 74 adults aged from 30 to 80 in lessons at pools in Berkhamsted, Hemel Hempstead and Tring and a number of others having private tuition.
I opted for a mid-way point and roped in an equally un-buoyant friend and the most patient instructor we could find. Harry Adler has taught most of Berkhamsted’s youngsters to swim – ‘the scary thing is I bump into them now and they are 18 and taller than me’ – but he has recently seen an increase in the demand from adults.
‘Swimming has suddenly become popular again, particularly with older people who find running too hard on the joints and roads too busy for cycling, while leisure centres offer all sorts of concessionary rates, he says. ‘I do get a lot of breast-strokers who want to learn crawl but also a surprising number of people who are scared even of getting in the pool in the first place.’
Reassuringly, he adds that his failure rate is tiny. ‘I can usually go from total fear of water to floating in less than two hours and from then on learning a stroke is the easy part.’
Unless like me and my fellow marathon-running friend Mary, you fall into the most difficult category of people to teach. ‘Runners are the worst because they want to do everything at speed and swimming is all about relaxation,’ Adler says – a description that clearly didn’t apply to my technique as I displaced most of the deep end with my first demonstration of front crawl. As Harry handed us a float each I was transported suddenly back to those sobbing lessons of my youth.
‘That’s the trouble. So many people have terrible memories of school lessons and it‘s put them off. It’s often only when they see their own children learning that they make the effort to go back to lessons themselves.’
He also insisted on goggle wearing, despite our protestations of the ‘panda eye’ side-effect. Clearly, when it comes to mastering swimming and breathing, such sacrifices are a necessity. And he was right. Suddenly, I was able to open my eyes and watch my arm going over as I lifted my head to the side and breathed. A float between the knees also stopped that sinking feeling both of mind and body as we both progressed to half a length without stopping.
‘A fun runner in her mid-50s is easier to teach than a young, lean sprinter because muscle sinks faster than fat,’ was just one of Harry’s morale boosting mantras. Knowing that a sport where the odd spare tyre or two is a bonus is the ultimate attraction. As is the feeling of achievement. Unlike sports such as tennis, where some sort of natural hand-eye coordination is a necessity, anyone can learn to swim and reach a goal – or at least the end of the pool – in a short space of time.
A few lessons in and I not only look forward to our hour-long sessions but am feeling the health benefits. With breast-stroke, the only aching part afterwards was from the chlorine in my eyes; with crawl, I am discovering muscles that previously existed only in my biology textbooks.
On sharing my new-found ability to move faster in water than on land, I have been amazed by the reaction as many friends have admitted to being closet dog paddlers or Li-Lo floaters.
Call me shallow, but adding front crawl to my list of achievements made over the past 50 years has made reaching this milestone almost bearable. Now if I can just perfect paragliding and snake charming and get a tattoo, my year will be complete.
For a list of adult swimming lessons in the county, go to swimming.org or sportspace.co.uk