My adult swimming journey

Well, this is not something I ever thought I’d be writing about. If you’d asked me 18 months ago about my adult swimming journey you would’ve received a very short answer: I can’t swim.

I’ve spent so much of my life (about 29 years of it) thinking and talking of myself as someone who can’t swim, and it’s weird to describe myself in any other way. Even now, when by any reasonable person’s estimation I can swim relatively well, I struggle to say the words ‘I can swim’. I’ll say ‘I’m still not a very strong swimmer’ or ‘I can swim a little, but not really’.

It’s probably time that I own it. I can swim.

How I came to be 29 before learning to swim

First up, let’s deal with the FAQs I’ve been answering my whole life.

  1. When I say ‘I couldn’t swim’, I mean I couldn’t swim. Not in a ‘I’m not a very good swimmer but I get by’ kind of way. I mean that, as my father so eloquently put it once, I had the swimming capacity of a brick.
  2. Yes, I did do swimming lessons with school but I just never really got it. I don’t know why. My family aren’t really beach or pool people so I didn’t do much swimming outside of school and I just never learnt properly.

Once I reached upper primary school I had pretty much accepted that swimming was just not something I was ever going to do. I very happily lived my life not being able to swim. I rarely went to the pool or beach, and when I did I would just stay in the shallow water. It wasn’t something that bothered me that much and I never intended to learn.

Then I got married. And when you get married you get someone who not only helps with the laundry and cooking, but also encourages you to do things. Get outside your comfort zone and be a better person.

The person I got comes from a family who spends about half their time at the beach and the other half in their backyard pool. He’s a really strong swimmer and loves being in the water, so he was keen for me to be able to enjoy that too.

I was pretty resistant to his suggestions that I take swimming lessons. I’d lived a full and happy life without swimming and I didn’t need to start now. I hardly ever went to the beach anyway so it wasn’t that important.

If I’m being really honest, the main reason I was resistant was that I was scared. Maybe the reason I hadn’t learnt anything back at school swimming was that I actually just can’t swim. Maybe my body isn’t that buoyant or I don’t have big enough feet. Maybe, even if I take lessons and I try really hard, I just won’t be able to do it. I’ll fail.

And nothing scares me more than failing.

My final motivation

The thing that finally got me to conquer my fear of trying and failing was pretty simple. It wasn’t that swimming is a good life skill, or that my husband really wanted me to do it.

It was that he promised that if I learnt to swim we could go on holidays somewhere with a swim up bar.

I’m joking, of course! That was just one of my motivations. The big thing that tipped me into the ‘it’s worth trying’ camp was the realisation that not swimming could mean I miss out in a big way. I want to have kids one day and I don’t want to miss out on family fun times with them because I can’t swim. And I certainly don’t want to be unable to help them if they get into trouble in the water.

My first lesson

Boy was I nervous about my first swimming lesson. It didn’t help that the day before I bought bathers that absolutely did not fit and threw out the receipt before trying them on so I couldn’t return them.

I turned up to the pool a nervous wreck and was surprised to find that there were about seven or eight people in the class. That’s one thing that’s really surprised me: it’s so much more common for adults to not be able to swim than I thought. Everytime I talk to someone about my swimming lessons they’ll tell me how they or someone they know can’t swim or can’t swim well.

That first lesson was okay. I didn’t make a fool of myself. I didn’t drown. Apparently I had a very strong kick. The thing I found most surprising though is that swimming is hard. I had always assumed swimming was easy: everyone can do it after all, and how hard is it lie on some water and move your arms and legs around? Despite my fears of failure, I believed that if I went to lessons I’d probably pick it up within a month or so.

Umm, no. It was a slow and at times very frustrating process. Swimming is hard! There’s the coordination, the breathing without getting a lungful of water, the subtle adjustments in body position and kicking. All in all it took about a year of lessons before I could say I’d achieved what I wanted.

To be eligible for the swim up bar holiday, I had to swim 25 metres in two different strokes. After nearly a year I could finally do it: 25 metres of backstroke and 25 metres of freestyle. There haven’t been many times in my life when I’ve felt real pride in myself, but the day I swam 25 metres of freestyle was one of them. I’d been working on it for a whole year and come close so many times. Finally, I did it.

The (not) swim up bar

This is how I found myself lying by the side of a pool in Bali drinking gin cocktails last month. We didn’t actually end up going somewhere with a swim up bar, but we did have a little button that, when pressed, would summon a friendly water to take my drinks order.

Spending 10 days splashing around in that pool in Bali felt really good. Not just because I was on holidays, but because it was a real achievement. Even just a few months earlier there was no way I could have breaststroke-d my way around that pool. There was no way I could’ve jumped out of a boat into the ocean to go snorkelling with tropical fish.

I’m still not a strong swimmer, and I’ve realised that I never will be. I’m still not confident in deep water and there’s heaps of room for improvement. But I can swim.


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