Our memories of learning to swim

Our memories of learning to swim

We recall being through in at the deep end when learning to swim!

Every issue, our Editor at Large, Valery will be reliving the best bits of our lives. This fortnight, the pleasures – and terrors – of attempting to learn to swim

When I was a child, it seemed that swimming pools and verrucas went together like The Lone Ranger and Tonto. So although my primary school actually had an outdoor pool, I spent most of the summer term glumly sitting on the side, infectious foot stuck inside its plimsoll, while my lucky classmates frolicked in the water. I managed my ten yards certificate in a splashy doggy paddle but never learned anything more elegant. However I don't remember being taught with anything but kindness or any teacher wielding an implement that features strongly in many of your anecdotes – the dreaded hooked pole! 

Mary Sharp's is typical: “When I was 12 years old our teacher took us swimming. I was very scared and stayed behind the shallow end until a schoolfriend came up behind me and tossed me over the top into the deep side. I floundered and went down. Then the lifeguard, using a long pole, caught me and hauled me out by my drawers. To this day I still remember how embarrassed I felt in front of all the other children laughing their heads off.”

Patricia Mayne could only face it down as an adult... “I was pushed into the deep end in a swimming pool when young and consequently lost all confidence. When I was 38 I decided to have lessons and finding ladies in their 80s at the class made me think, 'If they can do it, so can I'. To get our certificate we had to swim a length of the pool while the instructor walked along beside us holding a long pole with a hook on the end. I'm sure it's what made me keep going because there was no way I was going to be pulled out of the water on the end of a hook.”

No reminiscences would be complete without a knitted cossie story... “When I was 12 years old I went to a new school where we had swimming lessons,” writes Margaret Whittle. “Money was short so my mother knitted me a swimsuit. It was bright yellow with black stripes. I looked like a wasp. When it was wet, it stretched down past my knees and the wool weighed a ton. No wonder I never learned to swim.” And a million over-60s nod in sympathy.

But some of you were going to sink, whatever you were wearing. Like Marion Hobbins... “My teacher, Miss Phillips, would tie her coat belt to the straps of my costume and make me do the actions while she walked along the top holding me up. Then she would let go and I would unceremoniously sink like a submarine. I still cannot swim.” Linda Spooner's desperate teacher tried, “armbands, a rubber ring, and a rope all at the same time with the teacher pulling me along. But I was just relieved when the lesson ended and cannot swim to this day.”

Swimming-refusenik Brenda Martin, had it sussed from the word go. “Aged 13, we had to walk in a crocodile to the nearest baths and I hated the thought of swimming. On the second week I had a period, so my mother gave me a note to be excused, which the instructor gave back to me. So every couple of weeks when we went to the baths I produced this note. It worked because the instructor was always a different person.”

She was probably wise as so many of you were put off swimming for life by cruel instructors. Monica Colley remembers, “The instructor lined we nine-year-olds up at the deep end of the open-air unheated pool. He then walked along the back of everyone and pushed them in. Not only was this a shock but the water was freezing and I didn't stop shaking all day.” Sheila Wilde was being taught at the local baths, aged 11. “We were all lined up in the pool holding onto the edge and the female instructor told us to put our heads under the water. Some of us were frightened so she pushed our heads down. My dad, who worked nightshifts and had come along to watch, blasted the instructor for her actions but the damage was done. I never went back. ”

And even if they are not physical bullies, it seems swimming instructors just aren't programmed to make us feel good about ourselves, as Nora Ridley discovered. “In my 30s I decided it was time to conquer my fears and learn to swim, so I enrolled in adult classes. The instructor did not look kindly on a 30-something adult clinging to the side of the pool, afraid to let go. From her lofty position she looked down and asked, 'Have you ever cooked mince?' 'Yes,' came my mystified reply. 'Well, what happens to the fat when the mince goes cold?' 'It floats to the top.' 'Then dear,' she proclaimed, 'why are you afraid of the water. You are not going to drown.' That was my first and last swimming lesson at that pool. I eventually did manage to teach myself to swim.”

  • For more trips down memory lane, pick up the latest copy of Yours magazine