“It’s my nose.”, I cried plaintively, “It’s too big!”. I was standing in the baby pool with my children’s swimming teacher, whilst she regarded with me with the mix of patient resignation and mild frustration that she normally reserved for recalcitrant preschoolers. “It’s not your nose.”, she replied diplomatically, “Try again”. Reluctantly I took a deep breath and pushed my face back under the water.
I have never been a natural swimmer. Late to learn, I was still attempting panicky widths of the school pool while my classmates were receiving their 200m certificates. Skinny & small, I swam almost vertically in the pool, terrified of getting my face wet. Hushed tales of eyeballs being sucked out whispered to me during a primary school swimming lesson meant that I would not wear goggles, a fear that continued until adulthood.
Gradually I progressed from doggy paddle to an awkward breast stroke conducted with neck strained so that my face remained dry. This technique didn’t improve much over the years. I was a never a strong swimmer, fearful of going out of my depth and nervous in the sea where being splashed in the face was unavoidable.
In the spring and summer of 2013 I had started taking my fitness more seriously, my impending 39th birthday reminding me of how close the big 40 was. Alongside my regular Pilates classes, I had started doing HIIT daily, the short bursts of activity perfect for my short attention span and I had started swimming regularly. I was still doing lengths of breaststroke but I had increased my speed and was building up good stamina, greatly abetted by the fact that I had started wearing goggles. After a tentative first attempt saw my eyeballs remaining in situ, I could at least keep my head lower in the pool although I was still resisting fully submerging my face
On the last holiday we took just before the accident, I swam daily in the villa pool, doing 40 minutes of lengths whilst the children breakfasted. The owner popping by to check on the house during our stay, interrupted one of my morning swims. When I left the pool to talk to her, she complimented me, “You are so…” she struggled for the word whilst flexing her biceps in the international gesture for muscle,”…sculpted” was the poetic word she chose. It was with great irony that I had become the fittest I had been in years just before a car slammed into me and rendered me immobile.
Since my first emotional length swum since the accident, I had continued with my three times a week forays to the local pool. My arm, so weak on land, was starting to feel stronger pulling me through the water; my leg, too painful to fully weight bear was released by the waters supportive hold. It was becoming apparent, however, that my swimming style was going to have to adapt. My knee, no longer able to bend beyond 110 degrees was feeling the strain with the leg kick needed for breaststroke, whilst the pull back of the arm stroke was exerting too much pressure on my plated and still unknitted arm bone. It was this that was to see me standing in our local pool complaining about the size of my nose.
I had approached my children’s swimming teacher to ask for some one-on-one lessons in order to attempt front crawl. I was determined to master this stroke as it afforded me the perfect combination of less strain in the knee whilst improving the rotation of my shoulder which had been affected badly by the long period of arm immobility that the injury had enforced. Also, to be honest, front crawl has always looked like a serious swimmers stroke.
The first lesson started badly when even the push and glide with face in the water caused me to emerge spluttering and coughing. I could not exhale and was holding my breath whilst water crept up my nostrils causing me to choke. Bored lifeguards watched me endlessly push and glide unsuccessfully until my teacher hit upon the inspired idea of a nose clip. With my nose taken out of the equation, I managed to exhale fully under the water and glide for a third of the length of the pool by the end of the first lesson.
My second lesson focused on breathing patterns. I was frankly amazed by the revelation that by leading the up movement of the arm stroke with my elbow, it created a small space with which to take a breath. By slowing the stroke down to a ponderous speed, I practised taking breaths. It was at this point that I realised a swimming hat is an essential bit of kit; without it, I was simply inhaling a large mouthful of my own wet hair that clung to the side of my face like seaweed.
I found that I could only come up for air on my right side. Whether this was because my left shoulder had a limited range or because I am right handed, I was not sure, but it did mean that I had to take a breath on every second stroke as I could not maintain the exhale for four. By the third lesson, I had mastered a slow length of front crawl. It felt incredible and exhausting.
I ventured back to the public pool for my morning swim, feeling faintly ridiculous in my new swimming hat and nose clip. I started by alternating a length of front crawl with a length of breaststroke until the front crawl began to feel more natural. It was a matter of weeks before I began to swim the entire time in front crawl.
I felt that I had finally cracked it when a man approached me in the car park following my swim one morning. He expressed his surprise to see me walking on crutches with such obvious pain. He told me that he had seen me swimming and that I had made it look effortless. I nearly laughed. Little did he know the amount of effort that had got me there. Swimming was still far from effortless but it felt good nonetheless.