Not a complete washout

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Like a few other weirdos who presumably also never let go of the crush they had on their English teacher, I like writing. However, as another year opens, I still don’t know enough about anything to write about it without sounding like a five-pint fresher sounding off about US foreign policy on the dance floor – so there’ll be no incisive analysis of 2016 from me. Instead, here’s a few words about something else that also gave me a repeated sinking feeling last year: swimming lessons.

I had hoped that by now I would be writing about something a bit deeper than this – deeper say than the one end of the pool where my life isn’t in danger. Then again, the fact that it’s taken me quarter of a century to get past doggy paddle demonstrates pretty well that things sometimes take longer than you plan.

I guess if you look at it really optimistically, being a sinker has had some advantages over the years: you’re probably less likely to drown if you can’t swim (because you usually have a choice about whether or not you get in the water) and adrenaline sports – like pretending to relax on a lie-low in the deep end – are cheaper.

It’s not all good though. When you reveal that you can’t swim, most people look at you like you just said you can’t dress yourself, and if they’re a really close friend and you’re near water, they’ll want to test it, a bit like if you say you’re ticklish. You feel a bit silly. I’d like to have a good reason to explain myself: some awful childhood trauma or a life-threatening allergy would be absolutely great, but the fact is I was always just a bit crap at it and didn’t bother to get any better.

What’s more annoying is that it’s something that I’m uniquely crap at among almost every group I know. Of course, there are plenty of other important life skills that I’m embarrassingly bad at, but where I’m in good, useless company. Take dancing for example. I’m terrible, but so are most white English men, so it’s easy to blend in. And then there’s always tequila to convince you that you’re Michael Jackson (and thinking that you are is often good enough, as long as no one’s recording it), whereas no amount of liquor would convince me to take a plunge in the sea (and if for some reason it did, the results would be much worse than a few broken toes). Incidentally, my dancing and swimming styles are pretty similar. Both involving a lot of thrashing about, like a cat being held back from its dinner (front crawl/RnB), or a sheep with its head stuck in a fence (backstroke/indie disco).

So, in the interest of making sure my holidays aren’t always near-death experiences, I call up my local leisure centre to see if they offer adult swimming classes. In the politest way possible, they ask me just how bad I am. I could probably manage 25m, if really pushed (or pulled), I say. This is embarrassing. Let’s just get this over with. You don’t need the details. I’m in public. The woman on the end of the line thinks for a moment and then says approvingly “That makes you good enough for the intermediate class.” Wow. That’s a big confidence boost before we even start. Who needs tequila, eh? Hell, maybe I don’t even need lessons. A friend tells me later that this sounds a bit like the way hotels rank their rooms: there is never any ‘crummy, flea-bitten, don’t even use it to store your broken bike’ suite – just Premium, Premium Plus and Extra Premium. Back in your place, Tim.

I arrive at the leisure centre and whisper to the receptionist that I’m here for adult swimming lessons. She’s helpful and discreet (I’m paying for Premium, after all) and ushers me through to the changing rooms and the pool without drawing attention to my embarrassing secret.

Waiting by the pool side is Theresa, who’s going to be my teacher. She smiles hello, and tells me to warm up by doing a few lengths while we wait for everyone else to arrive. Whoa, hang on a minute. You wouldn’t ‘warm up’ for a marathon by jogging from New York to San Francisco would you? One of my classmates catches my startled glance and says: ‘Don’t worry. They raise the floor of the pool so it’s only 1m deep all the way. You can stop whenever you like.’ Phew. I try out something that may or may not look like breast-stroke and surprise myself by completing a length. I’m a natural. Maybe I can get this over and done within a couple of lessons.

Once everyone’s in the pool and ‘warmed up’, Theresa tells us we’re going to be practicing front crawl today. “I want to see what you need to work on so just go and do a couple of lengths of it,” she says. One after another, the class slips and crashes off to the other end of the pool, until there is just me and one other woman. Ah bottom of the class again. How I’ve missed this. “How does front crawl work, again?” my similarly immobile companion asks, and I couldn’t be more grateful.

Theresa explains the basics and sends us off to the other end, coughing and spluttering all the way. “You have to put your face in the water!” she yells after me. “Just come up when you need to breathe.” That sort of logic might work on a child, but I need to breathe all the time, never mind when I’m doing vigorous exercise. She nods patiently, and offers me two methods of breathing to try. I give them each a go and the choice seems to boil down to either blowing water violently up my nose or gulping it straight down like a parched duck. I wouldn’t count either of them as ‘methods’ exactly, but decide to stick with the first one.

I thrash and splash my way down the pool again, like a Prodigy fan having a bad trip in the festival mud. “Not bad,” says Theresa, with the emphasis on ‘bad’, and then, trying to be kind, she adds: “Not the worst I’ve ever seen, anyway.” I’m going to need more than a couple of lessons.


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