Swim Deep (Metro, 4th Jun 2015)
When I was two, I nearly drowned in the garden pond. I like to imagine this caused deep-rooted psychological trauma, which blocked me from fulfilling my true swimming potential. But really, I was just rubbish at it.
Later, at senior school, I was placed in swimming group eight. Out of eight. In reaction, I proceeded to be ‘off swimming’ for a whole seven years. I hated being weak and clumsy in the water and I dreaded letting boys see me in a regulation navy Lycra one-piece.
Later, I lost my heart to running and the freedom, the aching thighs and the weird, trance-like euphoria it gave me. But then I slipped two discs in my back. Imagine your strong, flexible and hard-working spinal column replaced with a tower of meringues and razor blades – and now imagine going for a jog. It was time to force myself to get
in the water.
A combination of ineptitude, and having spent several weeks jellifying on a cocktail of analgesics, meant my first outings were not encouraging. I spluttered along, being lapped by ladies of a certain age. It was clear I needed help.
Friends put me in touch with harley hicks, a swimming teacher at the London Aquatics Centre, who instantly made me feel at ease by asserting that a lot of adults secretly hate swimming because they’ve been put off by bad lessons. In fact, recent research shows that one in five British adults can’t swim at all and, according to the Amateur Swimming Association, 2.3million adults in england want to learn to swim.
Hicks has just coached the Swim Dem Swim Challenge, which saw 15 previously weak or non-swimmers take on the Great north Swim in a matter of months, so he knows what he’s doing. Within minutes, he had me swimming lengths of the Olympic pool with one arm like some kind of cheerful sadist.
After a few lessons, I’m still no mermaid, but then something happened: I started to love swimming. The things I used to hate about it (the silence, the repetition and solitude) have become the very things I crave. Floating somewhere weightless where my phone cannot follow and forced to think about nothing but my breathing is the closest thing I ever get to mindful meditation.
Of course, there’s still things to hate – the elbows in your face, dirty plasters, the moment I catch sight of ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼myself with a red face and plastered fringe and recoil in instinctual horror.
But then there are sunset swims at the lido, blossom drifting on the wind overhead, the incomparable thrill of staring down the barrel of an empty lane (if you time it just right) and the approach of Jennifer Aniston-style toned arms. And I’ve learnt that sometimes, in the words of the Stones, ‘You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.’ Or have I just swallowed too much chlorine?