Archive for June, 2012

About swimming

Monday, June 25th, 2012

I have been swimming a lot in the last year – not as much as I’d really like, which somewhat to my surprise would actually be twice a day, but still, most weeks in London I manage two good public pool swims.

I learned to swim when I grew up in New Zealand – all New Zealanders were taught to swim then, and I think they still are. I did my 220, 440 and 880 yard swims when I was at primary school (in the sea, off Takapuna Beach) and got my certificates, but from then on my swimming went into a decline. I reached the ‘I’d rather sunbathe and flirt with the boys than swim’ age, followed swiftly by the ‘I don’t want to get my hair wet’ stage. And I now realise I wasn’t a good swimmer in those days, anyway. I was very splashy, and I used up way too much energy kicking and waving my arms and body about, to no good effect. My style was, I think, pretty well rubbish. That didn’t stop me enjoying it, though, and I swam my way, off and on, through the intervening years – chin out of the water mostly, because of keeping my hair dry, and mostly with an ineffective style or none at all. But still. Doing it made me feel good.

Last year, though, I took up serious swimming again. For this I have two people to thank: my friend Brenda Gardner who suggested that we might have some lessons together, and Steve Shaw, whose Art of Swimming technique transformed everything for us both. I had said I’d never wear a cap again: I now wear a cap with pride. I had scoffed at goggles: I now wear them with purpose. I no longer care a jot about looking dorky. I care only about improving my swimming style.

There’s no doubt that Brenda and I have got a whole lot better at swimming the front crawl in the past year. This time last year we were clinging to the side of the Hampstead Lido in fits of giggles, trying unsuccessfully to remember what Steve had said in the workshop a fortnight earlier. We got his video; we bought his book. We swam with gritted teeth and a slight feeling of desperation, but we swam. “It’s the breathing,” we said to each other. “If we could just get the breathing right….”.

We swam on. We shared a couple of private lessons in fancy sports clubs with one of Steve’s teachers and we started to improve. I swam my way across France and Italy last September, picking out of season hotels to stay in as long as they had decent pools (which mostly had to be unlocked for me) and my stamina got better, especially in the big pool at our holiday farm in Umbria. I joined the Kentish Town Sports Centre when I got back to London, and went twice a week, which I still try to do.

My breathing is a whole lot better although I still can’t really alternate sides, which is what Steve says you should do to keep your neck happy. (This may be because my neck isn’t happy to start with, see earlier mention of swimming for many years with my head out of the water…) So I’m saving up for more lessons so I can finally nail the front crawl – maybe even move on to backstroke.

And in this last year I have discovered some new things about myself. One is that I really don’t enjoy public pools, especially not indoor ones, but if that’s all that’s sensibly available that’s what I use. And sure, I feel wistful when I remember the springy feel of water in un-chlorinated oxygenated private pools, or the joy of swimming outdoors – but I take what I can get. I might still moan about it, but I take it.

Two is, I don’t like public pools when they are filled with splashy men doing butterfly stroke in the slow lane, or practising their diving, or swimming right into me because they’re going clockwise when the sign says anti-clockwise. Women don’t seem to do any of those things so I try for the women-only hours at the pool. And if that sounds sexist I’m sorry, but just come along to Kentish Town and you’ll see what I mean.

Three is, I realise that I love swimming because of how I feel when I’m doing it: calm, confident and persistent. It’s such a joy to concentrate on a small collection of things: breath, strokes, rhythm, pace. And my inner critic, who generally inhabits my mind during all my waking hours (and many of my sleeping ones in dreams) and relentlessly monitors and censures my thoughts and actions, doesn’t come into the pool with me. I assess everything peacefully, and when I get the breathing wrong, say, I just adjust it and try again without anxiety. And so I have finally realised something of great importance to me:

My inner critic can’t swim!

Who knew?

Who knew?