I’ve always been a terrible swimmer. I never learned as a kid. And the times that I’ve swum, I’ve more thrashed about than technically swum.
I remember two times where I’ve swum in the sea and both times felt like I was in serious trouble.
I thought that I might well have died.
In fact, without help around me, I could well have died. (I’d never thought about that until writing this just now. Oops.)
The first was in 2009 in the Great Barrier Reef off Queensland, Australia. Me and my mate Grant were backpacking and decided to do a boat trip. We did some snorkeling which was okay. But then we had the chance to do some scuba-diving. With some rudimentary instructions on signalling and breathing, we were off. I didn’t feel nervous because I felt that with flippers, I’d be able to swim easily. At least, it looks easy in the movies. Boy was I wrong. At one point, deep below the catarmaran, our leader signalled to rise to the surface. I tried to rise but instead everything I was doing was taking me towards the coral reef. I knew this stuff was jagged and sharp and I tried to swim away but every stroke was taking me closer and closer instead of further and further away. Luckily, our scuba leader came to help me out and guide me to the surface.
The second time was with my mate Colin in Palawan, Philipines in 2015. We were in clear blue, pristine waters, in amongst islands. We had a boat to ourselves with a pilot taking us from island to island. The skipper said to go into the water, so I did. Oddly, I’ve never learned to tread water effortlessly, so it became a bit of struggle. I made my way to the rocky edges of the island nearest to me, but the edges were razor sharp and I couldn’t hold on. I motioned to the skipper that I was in trouble and he threw me a life jacket much to Colin’s amusement. I knew then that I had to learn to swim properly.
Recently, these thoughts have become deafening. For example, my in-laws live in Bulli, NSW, and as in the rest of Australia, there’s a strong beach and swimming culture. I want to be confident in the sea. I want to be good in the sea.
And finally, I want to be a strong swimmer for when I have kids, which should come pretty soon. I want to be able to go swimming with them and also know that if they ever got into any trouble in the water, that I could rescue them.
Which all led me and Angelique to Nuffield Gym for lessons in Wandsworth, as well as me getting new prescription goggles.
New prescription swimming goggles
One thing that’s always put me off swimming is the fact that my eyesight is terrible and that I wear contact lenses. Contact lenses and water don’t mix, and they get damaged by non-saline fluid. Chlorine would destroy them and make wearing them painful.
So I looked up ‘prescription swimming goggles’ and found this great company that does them for around £20. What a bargain.
Here’s the company: http://www.prescription-swimming-goggles.co.uk
So armed with my new goggles, I was ready for the next stage:
We decided to get professional instruction and we found a great teacher called Sophie. She’s a school teacher in her day job and teaches swimming in the evenings.
My first lesson was just me thrashing around in the pool. It turned out that my technique for freestyle was just instinctive and terrible. My arms were like side-on windmills and chopped into the water. My legs were sinking and very low in the water. And I couldn’t do more than half a length without stopping.
For the next few lessons, we worked on getting my arms to come over into the water at a much straighter angle and to engage my core so that my legs would sit straighter and more horizontally in the water.
We used swimming aids such as pullboys (which go between your legs at your groin), and floats. The pullbuoys help with engaging the core and encouraging good leg action. The floats allow you focus on your leg action and good arm motion.
After 5 lessons, Sophie said that we should take a break from lessons and that I should practice on my own and get my endurance up. My lack of endurance was holding me back from making good progress. She was right. My endurance was weak and left me gasping for breath and a rest at the end of every length. Every lesson felt like a beasting!
By the 5th lesson, I felt like I had made progress. My technique was definitely better. I could do lengths pretty comfortably. And then Sophie said something that gave me confidence. (No wonder she’s a teacher!)
She said that I’d done 25 lengths in the 30 min lesson we’d just finished and that this would be our new benchmark. In the future, we would never do less than 25 lengths, no matter how long it took. She said that she could see me doing a kilometre in a session. It had crossed my mind, but when she said that, it breathed new life into my confidence levels. I started to believe it. And that’s what a great teacher does: they push you and stretch you and encourage you to look beyond what you thought you were capable of towards what you’re really capable of.
I joined the two local Nuffields through PayAsUGym which allows unlimited access for a month at a time and for the last month, I’ve swum around 4 times a week.
I LOVE IT!
My goals now in swimming are:
- Get to 200m without stopping (10 lengths in our 20m pool)
- Get to 500m without stopping (25 lengths)
- Get to 1km without stopping (50 lengths)
- Finish a sprint triathlon (that’s a 750m swim)
- Finish an Olympic triathlon (that’s a 1.5km swim)
I had hoped to do achieve these goals by the summer of 2019, but it’s looking more like the end of 2019, given those triathlon distances.
My freestyle tips for beginners
I’m no teacher (!) but here’s what’s worked well for me:
Get your face in the water and your chin to your chest
For some reason, this makes your body lie more horizontally in the water, which is good thing.
Roll your body to the side as you swim
This will feel weird but it will allow you to breathe easier to each side.
Master your breathing
I’m not a master of this yet, but it’s fundamental to good freestyle swimming.
Look behind you as you breathe
This will help your body to be more streamlined as you take a breath.
Swim as fast as you can
This will develop your cardiovascular abilities specifically for swimming.
Takeaways from learning this life skill
- It’s never too late to learn anything. It really isn’t! If you want to learn the guitar, do it. If you want to learn Italian, do it!
- Get good coaching and instruction. This is a shortcut to learning the right technique and doing the right drills. You could teach yourself, but how’s that going to go vs getting good coaching. Even Tiger Woods has a coach.
- Learning new things opens up horizons you never dreamed of. Before learning how to swim, I had no idea how much I would enjoy it. I love it! Now I want to go scuba diving, learn how to dive off the high board and go surfing. What could you learn that would open up your horizons?