When I decided to learn to swim in my mid-forties, I googled for inspiration but didn’t find many success stories. Scrolling back through my swimming journal documenting progress since then, I see many versions of the sentence "Feeling demoralised — still can’t swim". But I do go swimming now, and tonight I will try to swim a mile. I am sharing some of the things I have learnt in the hope that it will inspire other grown-ups to dip their toes into the water.
I used to be embarrassed about my aquatic incompetence. I have tried to address it at various times over the years, but no real change had occurred in the past. Years ago, I went for lessons at a small local pool. By the end of the sixth week, it transpired that our goal had been to glide from one end of the pool to the other. I’m tall, and the pool was not long. Neither was it deep. I could practically traverse it in one stride, so I wasn’t left with a great sense of accomplishment.
Some people have asked, why bother? Swimming involves so much getting wet, after all. For starters, swimming is great for your health and well-being. It would also be reassuring for me to know that I could avoid drowning in an emergency. And I do like a new challenge.
Two years ago I decided to attempt to address my aquatic incompetence again, and anticipated that throwing money at the problem would be the most efficient solution. I booked a private lesson with Stephen Shaw, creator of the Shaw Method. I naively hoped to be dolphin-like after one dip, but Stephen laid the foundations of being at ease in the water, which I then built on with municipal lessons and lots of practice. I still have a long way to go with my confidence and competence, but I do love swimming now. I have learnt things along the way which I hope may be of use to other flailing, breathless grown-ups too embarrassed to venture to the public pool:
Lesson 1: A lot of adults can’t really swim
I used to be so embarrassed about not being a swimmer, and imagined that I was in the vast minority and had probably missed the boat (sorry) on learning. Since opening up and telling people that I have been learning, I have been amazed by how many have said they also lack confidence in the water. In fact, one in three adults in England cannot swim one length of a 25 metre pool. Let’s start talking about this more, and let any swimming-related shame float away.
Lesson 2: You have to go swimming to get better at swimming and some others learning are not very good at it
Before I started to go swimming I was worried that I would be surrounded by "proper swimmers" and revert to childhood horror scenes of spluttering humiliation in swimming lessons at school. In reality, all sorts of people go swimming for all sorts of reasons. Some are using aquatic therapy to rehabilitate from an injury by moving in the water to help with pain, mobility and balance. Some are walking lengths. Some people use floats, and that is no indication of whether they can swim or not, because — revelation… being "able to swim" is not a fixed endpoint.
Lesson 3: Leave your self-consciousness in the changing rooms
This follows from the first two lessons. One of the biggest barriers to swimming for non-swimmers is self-consciousness. Mirrors are not your friend when you start stepping out in swimwear, or after you have taken your goggles off and turned into a frizzy prune. Being older and wiser is a superpower here. Wear something you feel comfortable in, and if that means it has arm and leg coverage that’s fine.
Lesson 4: Ask for a tour
When you haven’t been swimming for a while it can be daunting to even go into the unfamiliar environment. So far, when I have asked someone working at a pool to show me the pool and changing rooms, nobody has looked me up and down with disdain. Ask if you need a coin for the lockers or can leave your stuff by the pool. Find out the lengths and depths of pools and where everything is in advance so you don’t need to waste nervous energy on it.
Lesson 5: Relax
Relax. Relax. Relax. Relaxing is like a miracle. I used to be able to get myself from one end of a pool to another, somehow, but I would be in such a breathless panic that it was not something I could call swimming. Relaxing is the answer to everything and the two go hand in hand.. Trying harder is counterproductive; swimming teaches us to struggle less. You don’t need to jump into the water and immediately swim lengths. You can walk, stretch, practice breathing out with your head in the water, glide, and practice landing gently back in an upright position. The joyful revelation is that relaxing helps you to swim, and swimming helps you to relax.
Lesson 6: Find your cheerleaders
I would have liked to have had a programme to follow (preferably with badges and certificates), but as adults, we have to set our own plans and find our own rewards. Telling people my goals and sending them updates has given me invaluable moral support. I have an encouraging note from my supportive niece stuck by my desk, reminding me of her slow and painful efforts to learn to drive. It took time, tears, and many tests, but now she drives all the time. This leads me to the final lesson…
Lesson 7: Keep going!
I had hoped that one expensive lesson would be a quick fix, but my improvements in swimming have taken time, practice, and a variety of different lessons. I have celebrated milestones along the way, such as the first time I braved a lesson at my now beloved Olympic-length lido and the first time I swam a full length there.
I had a goal to swim a mile before my 45th birthday, which is in 6 days. By the time you read this, I may have swum a mile, or I may have just swum a bit more. Another cheerleader, my friend Sylvie, who has been motivating me along the way, sent me a message saying "A good try will be as good as a mile. Good luck. And there’s always tomorrow if today doesn’t happen".
If swimming is something you want to try too, go for it!