I’m a self taught swimmer.  I leant to swim, at about the age of 10, by trial and error (plenty of both!), in the River Thames at Port Meadow, Oxford.  In those days there were hardly any swimming pools and swimming in rivers – if you swan at all – was quite normal.  I remember the first time I managed to splash my way across the full width of the Thames and putting my feet down into squishy mud on the other side.  At school, in the 1950’s, we had a swimming pool but I don’t remember any swimming lessons as such; we were supervised to make sure we didn’t drown but largely left to our own devises when it came to learning any techniques.

As a consequence of being entirely self-taught, I have spent a lifetime swimming without any finesse.  My breast stroke wasn’t bad (I have big hands and feet which always helped me along) but my crawl was abysmal; not tidy and requiring a disproportional amount of effort.  I swim every day at the moment which has made me more aware of my inadequacies – especially when I see other swimmers (admittedly younger than me) doing the crawl with apparent ease.

For my 76th birthday my wife bought me lessons with a swimming coach.  I have now had three sessions and have embarked on a steep learning curve.  At present I’m in a stage best described as conscious incompetence; I knew I was incompetent before but now am aware of even more things I am doing wrong! If I think about my legs, my arms go to pot and if I think about my arms, my legs go to pot!  Of course, I quite understand about getting worse before I can get better, but discovering all the things I can’t yet do is daunting.

I have had to buy goggles and flippers. When I asked for flippers, the shop assistant called them fins and I told him that made it sound as if I wanted to impersonate a shark. Mind you, that might not be a bad thing; they appear to swim effortlessly.  So, donned in my gear – and with a float – I take a deep breath, push off from the side, arms out in front, head well down and practise using my legs whilst slowly blowing bubbles. With 80% of my breath gone, I whip my head up, legs still working, blow the remaining 20% of air out of my lungs, take in a deep breath and put my head down again. All done quickly with legs continuing to work throughout. You think that sounds easy? It probably is – but not if you fail to get your head up high enough and swallow water instead of air! Then I have a rolling exercise with my body in an ‘attention’ position and my head looking straight down at the bottom of the pool.  The idea is to roll the body right then left a number of times without moving your head.  I can roll, but my head rolls too.

I have just returned from a swim.  There were two young women in the pool swimming up and down doing the breast stroke; badly, heads up, legs much too low in the water (you see, I know right from wrong, problem is I can’t do it). Anyway, I thought twice about wearing my fins/goggles when exposed to public view, but they pretended to ignore the extraordinary spectacle.  Just being kind to the elderly – as, by the way, I find most people are.

I won’t bore you with lengthy descriptions of all the exercises I have been set, suffice to say I’m struggling and the prospect of ever being able to do a tidy crawl seems, at present, an ambition too far.  But my instructor, Maciej Mitura, is a delightful, utterly patient man and, of course, a superb swimmer. Yesterday, when I said something like, ‘I’m making a mess of this aren’t I?’ he actually said, ‘Believe me, Peter, this isn’t bad’.  When I expressed surprise and said I had no way of comparing myself with others, he replied, ‘Well, I have!’

I have told a few friends that, after a lifetime of swimming, I’m having lessons and they are all amazed. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to any of them to have lessons.  But I unreservedly recommend it.  It’s a real eye opener (especially if you wear goggles!) and learning new techniques is, as ever, a fascinating process.  My coach, Maciej Mitura, is London based and, if you live in the London area, he’s your man.  The website is www.swimsteps.co.uk



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