The Joy of Swimming

I had my first swimming lesson when I was about eight months old. I can’t remember it, but my parents say I wasn’t impressed with the experience at all. They persisted with my lessons despite my misgivings and today I’m very thankful for that early start.

I was lucky enough to grow up with a swimming pool at home. One of the great joys of my childhood was coming home from school on a hot day, quickly changing into my swimsuit, and swimming for hours with my sister. The pool became a fantastical make-believe world, where pool noodles and floating toys turned into dragons, pet dolphins, monsters and mermaids. Children must have a higher tolerance for cold water than adults because the pool wasn’t particularly warm at any time of the year, but this did not deter us one bit and we swam until late autumn. The golden leaves dropping from the trees only added to our magical world.

Swimming was not all play, though. I continued with swimming lessons during primary school and competed in the school gala every year. My swimming coach was called Byron and I remember him as a strict, stocky man with a balding head. He didn’t tolerate nonsense or whining and expected a certain level of discipline from the energetic school kids who attended his lessons. But I liked him. His brisk manner aside, he was actually quite funny. Byron was very particular about teaching children the correct technique for all the swimming strokes and he would stand next to the pool demonstrating exactly how one should kick when swimming breaststroke. Or the precise angle one’s hand should enter the water when swimming backstroke. Or how one should lift one’s head to breathe when swimming freestyle. Demonstrating swimming techniques with this amount of seriousness, while standing on solid ground, looked ridiculously silly to the kids lolling about in the pool. No one dared to laugh out loud, but I was definitely not the only one who thought it more than a little amusing. Having said that, I still remember Byron’s lessons and I’m extremely thankful for his care and dedication. He taught me how to swim with ease and joy.

…to complicate matters further there were now things like body hair and periods to worry about…

I later joined a swimming club where it was all about fitness and perseverance. By this time, I was an awkward teenager and my relationship with swimming changed. The pool was outdoors and come rain or shine, the water was always freezing. As the only Afrikaans kid, I felt shy and out of place, and to complicate matters further there were now things like body hair and periods to worry about. Most days it felt like the lessons were spent swimming up and down, non-stop, for hours. It was good exercise, I can’t deny that, but it was hard and lonely work.

I swam for the school team until I was seventeen, even after I stopped training. I think it’s only Byron’s lessons and years of muscle memory that got me through the last few gala’s alive. For some reason I always found galas extremely stressful, especially the big school events where kids and parents would watch from the pavilion. My nerves fluttered in my belly before every race and when I stood on the starting block I felt small and scrawny in comparison to the other sleek muscular girls. Then there was always the added level discomfort of standing in your swimsuit, cap and goggles in front your classmates, ready to swim for your life (I just didn’t want to come in last!). Despite these emotions, I kept on swimming because I genuinely enjoyed the freedom and joy of gliding through the water.

…I remember sitting in our small garden one sweltering day in December and the urge to swim overwhelmed me. It was like a deep ache I had ignored…

When we moved to Cape Town, my new school didn’t have a swimming team or pool and I stopped swimming altogether. Sure, I swam in the ocean a few times or in a pool, but as the years went by swimming became less of a priority. After moving to Johannesburg with Henry, a whole year would pass without me ever swimming. I remember sitting in our small garden one sweltering day in December and the urge to swim overwhelmed me. It was like a deep ache I had ignored for a long time but getting started again felt like too much of a hassle: I no longer owned any suitable swimsuits, caps or goggles, I wasn’t a member at a gym, and I had no other easy way of accessing a pool. The years kept passing, but that nagging urge at the back of my mind didn’t go away.

When we moved to Dublin this year, I decided to join a gym and take up swimming again. I was six months pregnant at the time and I thought it would be worth giving it a try. By this time, more than twelve years had passed since that last school gala and I was slightly nervous as I got into the lukewarm pool for the first time. Would I remember what to do after so many years? Turns out, swimming is like riding a bike, you don’t forget how to do it. I felt sheer exhilaration from that first weightless moment and all the joyful memories of my childhood rushed back to me. It was sheer bliss to feel my arms and legs powering me through the water while I listened to the muted underwater sounds and my own rhythmic splashing. In the months that followed, swimming became a peaceful and quiet time where I could reconnect with my body and calm my thoughts. It’s been so valuable, especially now towards the end of my pregnancy, as it always makes me feel graceful, free and strong. Now that I’ve finally started swimming again, I don’t think I’ll ever stop.

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