When my physiotherapist first suggested that swimming would be the best exercise for me, I shrugged, and sighed. “Yeah, I know, but I really hate swimming.” At that point, I wasn’t desperate enough to submit to all the attendant unpleasantness: the cold shudder as buttocks meet water when you get into the pool, strangers’ hairs crawling over slimy tiles in the showers, the baffling ineffectualness of towels in a changing room environment, leaving your skin so sticky that you have to crowbar yourself back into your jeans… Some months down the line, however, I was feeling so sludgy and lacklustre from lack of exercise that swimming seemed like… not the worst idea. Particularly when a dear friend offered to go with me one day a week.
After one session, I was hooked. Now, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, shortly after 8am, you will find me at the Splash leisure centre. I saunter in with the air of entitlement that befits a direct debit-paying member, nonchalantly swipe my card through the turnstile, drop a pound coin in ‘my’ locker (number 6), get changed in ‘my’ cubicle (the one opposite locker number 6), and descend into the pool with a feeling of such contentment that it might actually be a flicker of joy.
Ever since my son was old enough to swim unattended, I had made a point of avoiding the local pool. Sean started swimming lessons at the age of three months along with his compadres, velcroed into garish swim nappies that made their bums bigger than their heads. My hope was that he would become a far more confident and capable swimmer than me. It worked: he is happier under the water than on it, and will submerge himself in a pool, ocean, or bathtub of the stuff at every opportunity. Back in the day when I would supervise bath time, I invariably had to count the seconds while he held his breath beneath the bubbles.
In stark contrast, I am terrified of submersion. Even putting my head under the shower makes me splutter and panic. I blame it on a recurring childhood nightmare in which I nearly drowned in a deep, rusty tank full of black water. Swimming lessons were a gruelling and humiliating experience. My grey-haired, grim-faced swimming teacher (who hovered poolside with a long wooden pole for her pupils to grab should they start sinking) could scarcely conceal her amazement when I finally completed my first-ever length. Tilting sideways like an unevenly stuffed toy, I trundled inelegantly through the water, one errant foot repeatedly breaking the surface, head stretched up like a turtle, gasping for air. Admittedly, the ‘imminent drowning’ look served me well; I never had to move on to the next stage which (horror!!) involved retrieving rubber bricks from the bottom of the pool.
My swimming technique has not improved over the intervening decades. Whenever the chlorinated water gets up my nose, I cough, splutter, flail, and generally make a tw*t of myself. Once I have got into a rhythm with my inhalations, however, a sense of calm descends, and I start noticing things. And that is why I have begun to love swimming.
Like so many of us, I can never stick at exercise if it feels like a punishment. Fitness goals leave me leaden. Whilst highly motivating for some, I feel they are scowling down at me, blocking out all the lovely light. Yes, there’s the post-exertion endorphin hit (which was the only reason I ever went for a run) but I derive no pleasure from the effort involved in obtaining that. And as for sweating, it might feel purifying in a sauna, but saline bodily excretions dribbling into my eyes, puddling in crevices while I huff, puff, and clench my jaw with the effort of breaking through the pain barrier? No thanks. Before my ankle became too painful, I would dance in my kitchen, partly to loosen up, but mostly for the joy of unaudited movement.
My new-found love of swimming is born not just of relief at being able to move almost entirely without pain. My Druid studies have introduced me to the central concept of the elements of fire, earth, air, and water, and the importance of seeking harmony, a balance of all four. In the art of palmistry (which is far more scientific than I had realized) our hand shape fits into one of those four categories, revealing fundamental aspects of our nature. Water is very much bound up with feelings, for instance. In striving for balance, it is important to connect with all four elements. My present understanding of the concept is instinctive rather than academic but it is in this spirit of inquisitiveness that I approach the water in the pool.
Those first few strokes in the water are a letting-go, a soft release into an undulating landscape that seems cast in liquid glass, hills and valleys swelling and falling away with each movement. Looking down, the lines on the bottom of the pool ripple and shiver as if at the behest of a magician’s wand. Posters on the walls are reflected as blocks of wobbling colour on the water – always just out of reach, swallowed before you can touch them. Rising low in the sky, the winter sun slices through the artificial, fluorescent glow of the indoor lighting and explodes in dazzling bursts of white on the pool’s surface. Increasingly these days, I have a sense of the boundaries between myself and the elements fading. I visualize tiny fragments of me dissolving, like one of those effervescent tablets, and dispersing into the ether. Being in the pool is a similar sensation, augmented by the way the light refracts in the water, making flesh appear less solid.
It is easy to see why water represents feelings. Both can be calm or turbulent, benign, or devastating, stagnant or flowing.
Despite still fearing the weight of water above my head, I am learning to trust its ability to hold me. I hope that one day, I will feel safe enough to float on my back. I stretch out my time in the water, glancing at the big clock on the wall; just two more lengths, just two more minutes… One morning, I tried counting lengths but, aside from the fact that I quickly lost track, it sucked the pleasure out of swimming. I could feel myself tensing up, retreating into effort, rather than relaxing into the water.
It’s not always effortless, of course – particularly on busier days. I guess it’s like walking into the wind on a blustery day; it requires more muscle power to brace yourself against the agitated currents and move forward. I confess to feeling peeved when I have to share ‘my’ lane with more than one other person. That man over there who has joined the slow lane with his snorkel and goggles – the equivalent of turning up to a picnic wearing a tuxedo and bow tie. The woman in the medium lane alongside me, performing the oddest hybrid butterfly-cum-breaststroke and splashing extravagantly like a seal, causing me to blink furiously and snort out water each time she passes.
How territorial I am already about a swimming pool which, until recently, I refused to even enter! We really cannot take ourselves too seriously, can we? It amuses me, too, how quickly I have formed habits: same locker and cubicle unless some impertinent individual has nabbed them, always using the hairdryer before getting dressed again, always parking in the same spot… I don’t suppose it matters, if the rigidity of the routine facilitates the fluidity of the endeavour. In the same way that I used to love dancing in my kitchen, unobserved, uncoordinated, luxuriating in the swinging of arms, the stretching of torso and the writhing of legs, being in the water is my new freedom.
Of course, a swimming pool is a sanitized and artificial environment. Wild swimming must be an altogether more thrilling, galvanizing experience. We will soon be going down to Cornwall for a week. Sean loves to bodyboard and, reasonably enough, has asked if my new-found enthusiasm for swimming means I will be joining him in the ocean. For all my musings about the beauty of water, I still prefer my H2O very much tamed and contained. I’m quite happy to observe the rough and rowdy waves of the North Cornish coast from a poetic distance. For now. Besides, crowbarring myself back into my jeans post-swim is nothing compared to the gargantuan effort of squirming into a wetsuit…
(PS – I do still indulge in a little modified kitchen dancing. However, in trying to avoid putting too much weight through my ankle, I end up looking very much the Dancing Priest in the comedy ‘Father Ted’: