I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with swimming. I learned to swim at my primary school in Redbourn where we used to use the fire pool at the local Brooke Bond factory for our lessons. Once a week we would line up in the classroom and then traipse across the common clutching our kit; for years afterwards I associated the smell of roasting coffee beans with swimming. I did my only swimming award in my last week at Redbourn Juniors. It was now or never for the red certificate filled out in perfect italic writing by Mr Catton, the headteacher and I managed 20m on my back with no arms – one length of the pool, a turn, across the width, another turn and another half a length before I could put my feet down in victory. As a teenager, I used to go ‘swimming’ once a week with my youth group but that was much more about posing at the side and giggling than doing lengths.
When I signed up for my first triathlon, I knew that the swim would be the most challenging part. I developed a weekly swim habit at Brentford Leisure Centre and did several sessions there in my hired wetsuit. The race started at the Excel Centre in London Docklands and the swim was in the Royal Victoria Dock. It seems incredible to me now, but my first ever experience of open-water swimming was during this open-water race. I just hadn’t appreciated how different it is to swim in a lake, river or dock compared to swimming in a leisure centre. There is no blue row of tiles on the floor making sure you swim in a straight line. There is no floor, at least not one that you can see – just a murky greenness when you put your head in the water. All around me at the start, arms and legs were thrashing as people got underway and I was soon left in a scary calm as they surged ahead. I felt completely overwhelmed and came very close to abandoning the race, but the thought of having to admit to the 60 people who had sponsored me that I had given up kept me going. I did the whole 1500m in breaststroke with my head out of the water, painfully slowly. Towards the end, I waved to my family who were patiently standing on the edge of a dock, and a safety marshall in a kayak zoomed over to check I was ok. I’d inadvertently used the distress signal when all I wanted to communicate was that I was still alive and persevering. As tempting as it was to seek refuge on his boat, I kept going. Finally, finally I made it to the end where another couple of marshalls helped me out of the water and onto my feet. My legs gave way as I tried to stand and one of them helpfully said, ‘You can do a sprint distance, you know.’
Over the next four years, I invested many hours and lots of money into learning to swim front crawl, working my way through a friend who offered to coach me, a class at Gurnell Leisure Centre, and an intensive weekend course whose hosts assured me it was suitable for beginners (it wasn’t). I bought a book which is always my instinct when I want to learn something new, but while it might have helped me understand what my legs and arms ought to be doing there are some things that can only learned by actually doing them. In the end, I paid a swimming coach an extortionate amount to work with me one-to-one and it paid off. The first time I swam 60 lengths of a pool non-stop – the magical 1500m I would need to do in a triathlon – I burst into tears at the end much to the consternation of the guy next to me who gave me a worried look and quickly dived under water. The picture above is of a triathlon at Dorney Lake where I did the swim front crawl for the first time ever.
I did my last triathlon eight years ago, and my swimming has been sadly neglected. We spent a week in Iceland earlier this year where every town has its own swimming pool thanks to the geothermally heated water. We threw our swimming kit in the car every time we went exploring and found some amazing pools. Ploughing up and down for a few lengths before sitting in one of the hot tubs made me realise how out of shape I was when it comes to swimming, and how much I missed being able to swim easily.
This morning I went to Acton Swimming Pool and did twenty lengths, with a little rest in between each one. There’s a long way to go before I can do 60 lengths with ease; I’ll be happy if I can manage two without a break next time. But it was fun and I’ll be back for more.