Taking the plunge: women who learned to swim as adults

It's never too late to learn to swim
It's never too late to learn to swim
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Many of us literally feel out of our depth when it comes to swimming,but as Helen McGurk finds out, even if you are a grown-up, you can still learn to crawl

An unflattering 1970s brown swimsuit, circulation-stopping armbands, leaky googles, and the faff of cramming waist-long hair into a recalcitrant swimming cap....these are my memories of learning to swim.

Avril Keyes learned to swim in her 40s

Avril Keyes learned to swim in her 40s

Enforced P7 trips to the swimming baths at nearby high school, watching my friends dive for bricks as I sank like an anvil, is not a happy recollection.

There was also the (very real) threat of verrucas, the eye-stinging chlorine smell, floating plasters and other unmentionables - not great if you are of delicate disposition - and a butch, shouty swimming teacher, who looked like she had walked straight out of an episode of Prisoner Cell Block H.

So, I gave up, but since the start of the year this lily-livered landlubber has been procrastinating over learning to swim.

It’s not a fear, per se, swimming just never clicked with me; I simply couldn’t master the technique..it wasn’t my thing, different strokes, for different folks and all that.

Lisburn woman Isobel Spence learned to swim when she was 59

Lisburn woman Isobel Spence learned to swim when she was 59

Growing up, holidays became an exercise in cunning as I desperately tried to conceal my secret.

I would look on enviously at the pool-based frolics of others’, resolving each year to channel my inner Duncan Goodhew and learn. It never happened.

Then my very own water babies came along and the pestering to frolic in the pool with them became an annual summer holiday source of frustration...other mums (ie better mums) could swim, so why couldn’t I?

As a parent, I know the importance of being able to swim - both my kids were sent to lessons as very young youngsters, I also know that, God forbid, should anything ever happen I wouldn’t be able to dive in and save them, which is why, this year, I will become a water lady, just like Isobel Spence and Avril Keyes, who both learned to swim later in life.

Isobel, from Lisburn, learned to swim at the age of 59.

‘‘When I was retiring I made a bucket list of things I wanted to do. Swimming and singing lessons were top of my list. And I am so pleased to have achieved both of those ambitions,’’ said Isobel, who turns 70 this July.

As a child, Isobel said she was scared of water when she was out of her depth.

‘‘My dad nearly drowned as an adult in Lough Neagh so my mum always warned me as a child to be careful and how treacherous water could be.’’

Isobel had 10 one-to-one lessons in Lisburn Leisureplex.

‘‘My instructor was also a firefighter that I met when we rented his holiday home in Portrush and we somehow got talking about swimming lessons. He was very supportive and gave me a great deal of confidence.

‘‘I was very apprehensive at the start. My main problem was that I couldn’t see to swim underwater when I took my glasses off. I overcame this by ordering prescription swimming goggles with my lens strength, which helped a great deal.’’

Isobel said having lessons has given her a real boost in confidence and transformed holidays.

‘‘I love the beach and pool but was always anxious about going in in case I would get out of my depth.

‘‘Now I always book hotel with a nice pool as one of my priorities and I love getting into the pool - even if its freezing.’’

Isobel’s advice to other adults considering learning to swim is simple: ‘‘I would highly recommend giving it a go. You might be surprised at how much you can achieve. It doesn’t matter how old you are, there is always something new to learn.’’

Avril Keyes, a lifestyle blogger who lives in Belfast, did try to learn to swim as a child, but it didn’t work out.

‘‘I learned to swim when I was about eight or nine but only the very basics and never learned how to swim with my face in the water.

‘‘I didn’t have the best teacher - my memory is of being afraid of her and feeling relief when the lessons stopped.’’

Avril added: ‘‘We holidayed in Wexford every summer throughout my childhood though and spent lots of time in the sea.

‘‘While I don’t remember being scared as such, I was always fearful of going underwater. Then, when I was in my teens, I drifted out to sea in a lilo.

My dad swam out to get me but in my panic I came off the lilo and realised I was out of my depth. It wasn’t far out and I don’t expect I was in major danger but I think that experience stayed with me, and until a couple of years ago, I would have made every excuse to avoid getting into the sea or the pool.’’

The situation changed for Avril after a third episode of back pain which had her bed bound for a time.

‘‘Swimming was suggested as a great non-weight bearing exercise for my back, but I was warned that it was only beneficial if I learned how to swim properly with my face in the water.’’

Avril also opted for one-to-one classes at the Grove Health and Wellbeing Centre.

‘‘I was massively apprehensive about the classes but the instructor put me very much at ease.

‘‘The first two classes were spent at the side of the pool gradually building up to immersing my entire head into the water - something that terrified me! But by the end of the second lesson, I was able to do it.

‘‘She reassured me that muscle memory would kick in the more I trained my body how to breathe when in the water and I practiced at home with a basin in between lessons.

‘‘On the third lesson, I finally swam a few breast strokes with my head in the water and it was amazing.

‘‘I suddenly realised why people enjoy swimming. It hadn’t clicked with me that you block out the sound when you’re under the water - there’s a peace there that is so lovely!

‘‘The best bit of it all was my son’s reaction - he was so proud of me!’’

In total, Avril had four lessons.

‘‘I could have had more to hone the technique but I knew how to do a basic breast stroke already - for me it was always just the underwater bit I had to overcome.’’

And, just like Isobel, Avril said learning to swim in her 40s has given her a great confidence boost.

‘‘I remember thinking, if I can do this, I can do anything! Via my blog (www.alifetostyle.com), I’ve been contacted by many women who like me, have spent hundreds of pounds on swimming lessons for their kids but thought they were too old to learn..or were afraid of a group based lesson.

‘‘More again who have anxiety about stripping down to a swimsuit.

‘‘I always encourage them to find an understanding, female teacher and book the lessons at a quiet time. There’s nothing to lose and everything to gain. ‘‘

Avril added: ‘‘I think one of the sources of my fear was my own mother’s fear of water so if nothing else, I’m hoping my willingness to jump right into the pool on holiday is giving my kids a better example.’’