Luminous Swimming

Luminous Swimming
Photo by Silvia Grešová / Unsplash

My first memory of a swimming lesson is when I was six years old. Our teacher had us all line up along the side of the pool with our arms above our heads, hands joined as if in prayer. On her order, most dived in. Those who hesitated were pushed. I hesitated over the deep end.

Some fifty years later, the physio advises swimming. My friend, who is over eighty and still swims, is enthusiastic about the benefits. In the name of future-proofing, I turn up at the pool for a small beginners' class. It takes courage to persist in the face of spluttering panic, trying to trust the water to hold me. The coach's mantra, 'relax, relax', reaches my ears but not my flailing limbs.

Despite feelings of desperation, I am gripped by the process in a way that will not let me leave it. In time, I find I can lie calmly in the water but while my classmates kick smoothly up and down the lanes, the slightest eddy can bring me to a standstill or turn me aside like a leaf. I continue week after week, dutifully practising the drills while other swimmers go round or sometimes over me. I try not to show my frustration but there's nowhere to hide.

The breakthrough comes on a spring morning. I arrive at the pool to a different atmosphere. The sun glows through the skylights, the other swimmers seem muted, fading out to the periphery. The coach is cheerful and relaxed and he lends me a book he thinks I will find helpful. Together we concentrate on the kick. He mimes flicking a towel and I remember how as a teenager I once spent a weekend learning to crack a stockwhip, hoping to impress someone I cared about.

He varies the instructions and at the end of one lap I say, ' Just there, I felt it's not about effort, something worked.' He crouches like a runner brought to his knees at the finish line and says, 'Yes! Yes!'

In my lunch break I read the book. It describes exactly my embarrassment and frustration, and gives a map for the learning process, encouragement that the journey will be worth it. Over the weekend I suddenly picture one leg kicking. It's as if part of my brain has synapsed, like Michaelangelo's God animating Adam. I can't wait to get back to the pool to try it.

At the next lesson, I kick straight through the eddy and stand up to see the coach grinning broadly, giving double thumbs up. As I go on through the drills, the sun dapples the tiles beneath me. When I turn and look up, the webbed feet of a seagull on the skylight make me laugh.

I leave the pool with my togs in the bag over my shoulder. The town looks marvellously sunny and my feet are a little off the ground.