I love swimming – the freedom of the water, the weightlessness, gliding and floating. Don’t you?
Erm, well no. I can’t really swim …
You can’t swim? Really?
That’s what everyone says. Call me soft but I don’t like getting water in my face and up my nose. It’s an illogical fear. So I can flail around a bit in a way that’s reminiscent of breaststroke – chin up and face out of the water – and I can move forwards. Possibly I could do that for 25 metres. But if I were to do that in a swimming competition I’d be laughed out of the pool and if I were in a life or death situation, I’d definitely die. I’ve decided I should have lessons.
Like you did in school?
Well, not really. At school my class all seemed like waterbabies and mermaids, and I got shouted at by my teacher for being rubbish. The session I had with Lorcan Loughrey, a personal trainer at the Reebok Sport Club in London, wasn’t like that at all. He trains all kinds of people from novices like me to Paralympians, so he has to be nice.
So what was the session like?
To warm up I walked the length of the pool and then we set about doing some breathing drills. First I had to put my face in the water and breathe out of my mouth for 10 seconds, then again but out of my nose, then again pulsing the air out of my mouth and then pulsing the air out of my nose. After a couple of repetitions of that, I did starfish floats on my back and front (face in the water), streamline floats and then gliding from the poolside with my face in the water. From floating and gliding, we moved on to improving my kick, using props like floats and balls to make sure I was kicking from my hips and not from my knee. By the end of the session I was doing what he called rotation drills, swimming on one side, face in the water, and then rotating to the other side. I was really pleased with how much progress I made in one class.
Did you panic?
Almost! But I managed to keep a grip on myself.
For the whole of the session?
Yes – it really was less scary than I expected it to be. There were a couple of times where I could feel panic beginning to rise – putting my face in the water for 10 seconds and trying to breathe out right near the start of the class was the main one, but not knowing how to manage my breathing is apparently why I struggle with swimming, so I’ve got to get over that. After trying to breathe out of my nose I could feel the urge to cry and was very grateful to be wearing goggles, but Lorcan seemed to clock it anyway and didn’t keep pushing me.
By the end of the session I’d begun to make freestyle movements and felt more confident about putting my face under water, though I’d still not mastered my breathing. I had water up my nose lots of times – one of the things I hate most about swimming – but was reassured that that happens and that it is OK. Water in your nose doesn’t necessarily mean you’re drowning.
What else did you learn?
The more relaxed I am in the water, the easier the movements. Every time I tensed up, the drills became difficult. Feeling relaxed is easier said than done, but Lorcan told me that being in the water is brave – astronauts train in swimming pools, and no one thinks it’s easy to go into space. It’s a matter of practice and learning how to manage being in a strange environment.
So not like school at all?
No – being in a lovely gym with an encouraging trainer is nothing like being at shouted by your schoolteacher at Fleetwood baths. But if I wanted to join a group class, I could. Lorcan runs “Swim Camp” every Friday, where you can practise your swimming drills alongside other learners and improvers with him on hand to help you out if you get stuck, and there are a couple of triathlon classes too.
Sounds great! Who would you recommend it to?
If you want an individualised development and training plan, either to learn, improve or to train for an event like a triathlon, a personal swimming trainer is a good idea. Lorcan can suggest drills depending on where your weaknesses are and will adapt them to match your physical capabilities.
Read the piece as it appeared in the Guardian here