Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Off Piste - Pools of Thought

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Off Piste - Pools of Thought

Article excerpt

Valerie Sanders has overcome her fear of water - as long as it's the indoor, chlorinated variety - to discover a love of swimming that brings out the worst and the best in her.

I have a long and cowardly relationship with swimming. Not for me any deep-sea heroics with sharks off the shores of Malaysia, or snorkelling around shipwrecks. To my shame, I confess I have never swum in the sea; I have never dived. I have always waited for at least an hour - more like two - before taking to the water after a meal, and that water has always been the artificially turquoise blue, fragrant with chlorine, of the safely enclosed indoor swimming pool.

Yet I really do love swimming: swimming is the essence of freedom - just so long as I'm not out of my depth, and it's a quiet Sunday lunchtime, and all the squawking children and burly dads have hauled themselves out of the water for a clubroom lunch in front of the rugby. Then, with no one cluttering the lanes, I power happily up and down, back and forth, 70 times. It has to be 70, even though 64 lengths count as a mile. "Going beyond" is one of our university's mission slogans, so that's what I do. I go the extra (bit of a) mile. Why stop at 64 if you have it in you to do 70? But equally, why commit to 72 if you might have to do that every week from then on?

Swimming brings out the worst in me, and not only these habits of obsessive-compulsive behaviour. Over the years it has made me tell lies, deceive teachers and push past the dreamy, drifting mums with one eye on the soup of children bubbling beyond the "slow" lane; I who have myself been repeatedly overtaken on the drive to the pool by people impatient with my self-righteous adherence to the speed limit. Driving and swimming are the yin and yang of my weekend life, sharing a common history of early, long-drawn-out avoidance. I learned to do both and then pretended I couldn't do either; then, when I was ready at last, it had to be on my terms - no diving in pools, no driving on motorways. It was of a piece with not walking until I was two (I had seen my younger brother do it, and knew the risks). Now I love it - walking, that is, and running, and Pilates, but not driving on motorways. I love all exercise, but have never learned how to do any of it properly. I have tight hamstrings, I don't like putting my head under water, I have never mastered the crawl or the butterfly, and I swim with my head up, like a moorhen, as people of my age do, because that was how we were taught - but at least I don't walk in the water, which seems to be the latest variant on not swimming when swimming is what you're purporting to do.

Since when did walking become the new swimming? I long to stop and ask them, those pairs of fat friends who amble up and down the lanes, as out of place as any leisurely couple taking a stroll up the central reservation of the M25. Sometimes they vary it and walk backwards to up the challenge, or else they sneak in a normal length of breaststroke before scuttling past through a backwash, elbows jutting outwards, in an aqua power-walk of unexpected velocity. Perhaps, by keeping their feet on the pool floor, their eyes on the distant horizon, they too are avoiding the horrifying realities of actual swimming.

Like most people, I began swimming as a child. Both my parents thought it was a good idea, although my mother hated it herself and never learned to swim properly. The smell of slippery duckboards mixed with chlorine gas of trench-warfare intensity was enough to put her off, combined with the usual swimming-bath experience of muffled shouting heard through waterlogged ears. The last straw, she tells me, was returning to her changing cubicle to find a wet footprint on her liberty bodice, thrown carelessly on to the floor. Things were only slightly more advanced in my own childhood, my school hiring the local orphanage (of all places) for our weekly shivering attempt at the basic strokes. Knowing that the orphanage was for the children of drowned trawlermen did little for my confidence, and when the caretaker forgot to turn on the water heater (which happened fairly often), it was all too much like the Barents Sea to tempt me into any displays of aqua-bravery. …

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