Do you remember that feeling when you learned to swim? The moment of transition, I mean. Much like learning to ride a bike - the first time you manage it unaided comes as a big surprise. There’s a sense of disbelief. In your head: Are you sure no-one's pushing me? Are you sure there’s nobody helping?
And then, it sinks in: there’s no turning back, you won’t lose it, you’ve got the knack, you’ve got it! and you’re away. There are still things to learn, but the biggest block of all – the lack of confidence to try – has been conquered.
Mine happened in Mrs E’s back garden. There was a small group of us, we were about nine or ten years old. The school trips to the local indoor pool had been awful for us. We were the inferiors in this scenario; we couldn’t join the main activities because we hadn’t yet learned to swim. So the teacher cordoned us off in a tiny secton of the shallow end, gave us armbands and (pretty useless) polystyrene floats, shouted out a few instructions which made us feel worse (it wasn’t instructions we needed, it was understanding) and treated us as a major inconvenience to their proceedings. Fellow classmates dived and jumped in at the deep end and we just tiptoed about nervously, never daring to venture beyond where our feet could touch the floor, not believing our clumsy little bodies were ever designed to float. I already hated Rounders, I dreaded Sports Day and now Swimming was another thing I couldn't do properly. You know, it still irks me today that my school experience in general (both primary and secondary) didn’t place as much value in the ability to draw pictures as it did in running or hitting a ball. How different things might have felt if it had.
However, Mrs E came to the rescue, and here I am writing about her because I started thinking about the unsung heroes in my life – nothing grand or dramatic, nobody saved me from sinking in quicksand or from falling down a well, but there are people I think of whose inspiration in one form or other made a huge personal difference.
She had this little pool in her back garden and had come to some arrangement with my school to start teaching the non-swimmers in small private groups each week. No more trips to the local indoor baths with their stench of chlorine and fiddly lockers. That Summer in her garden she nurtured my confidence with great patience, kindness and individual attention, until after a number of lessons everything just fell into place. I'll never forget that moment, just as I'll never forget the cycling one either. Anyway, it was just something she did and enjoyed, and once I’d learned there was no need to go back and I was off to secondary school and I hardly ever saw her again, nor had much reason to think of her. But all these years on I realise what a simple difference she made - not that I do a lot of swimming these days but the point is: I know I can. Any time I’ve ever lowered myself into a pool, fooled around in a lake, or let the salty waves of the sea support me as they rise and fall and tangle seaweed round my feet, I should thank Mrs E for teaching me to trust in myself.
Wire: Our Swimmer