Sink Or Swim? – I Choose To Swim!

June 25, 2010

They say feel the fear and do it anyway. Well I’ve finally decided to confront mine by taking swimming lessons for the first time in over thirty years.

Learn to swim rubber duck wearing inflatable armbands

“Wow, Pie,” you say. “That’s a long stretch.” You’re right, dear reader. It’s been a while, but that’s because I don’t like the water. When I say I don’t like the water, I mean I really don’t like the water. Although I’m more likely to die in a car crash than a sinking ship, I won’t get on a boat unless I absolutely have to, even if it’s moored. This fear means I will never allow myself to go further than knee deep in the sea and there’s no way I’ll walk along a canal. Having said that, I walked along the canal recently as a kind of immersion therapy, if you pardon the pun. However, I made sure I was as far away from the edge as possible. Here’s why.

When I was seven years old, I went to my first ever swimming lesson. I was as excited as any other child in the class. Once we were all in the pool, we were instructed to walk to the other side of the width. Easy, right? I got halfway across when I suddenly lost my footing and went under. I tried to get up, but I kept going under. The harder I tried, the worse it got and the bigger the panic. My seven-year-old self became aware that death was coming, with no way of being saved from the grim reaper. No one had noticed I was in trouble. I was going under for the fourth time when I finally found my footing again and managed to stay upright. Now I was crying hard in the middle of the pool. It was only then that the teacher realised something was wrong. The damage had already been done and even though I continued the lessons until I left primary school, with a more sympathetic teacher who gave me extra time, I could not get past the notion that the water would kill me. I wouldn’t even try and swim without floats or inflatable armbands because I was convinced that if I did, I’d sink, drown and ultimately die. Even as I write this, I feel quite sick and I want to cry. It’s as if it happened yesterday.

I had been toying with the idea of learning to swim again and conquering my fear for some time, but I’d always put it off. The real tragedy of this story is I’d always imagined myself swimming brilliantly. Maybe like Patrick Duffy in The Man From Atlantis. But I knew my reality was as far away from that fantasy as the dark side of the Moon and it gave me a heavy heart.

Opening title from 'The Man From Atlantis' TV show

Mind you, I also imagine dancing on skates like Gene Kelly in It’s Always Fair Weather, but if you saw me on my inline skates, you’d realise I have a far better chance of landing on Mars. But I digress. The universe must have heard me because I came across an advert for a course of six swimming lessons for free in a local paper. I applied online, received a call two months later and last Thursday found myself poolside, being introduced to the instructor who was a perky Aussie (as if there’s any other). When I told her I was nervous, she snapped, “Don’t be silly.” in her perky Aussie way. I was not impressed. I gave her the biggest skunk eye to no effect, hermetically sealed as she was in her perky bubble. I decided to not let it get to me and proceed with the lesson, but I had also decided that if this was how it was going to be for the next six weeks, then I’m gone. You won’t see me for dust. There were three other people with me, including a Chinese girl who said she was a little afraid of the water. It was great to hear I wasn’t alone. She became my new water phobic best friend – in my head, at least. The teaching pool has a movable floor, so it can be as deep or as shallow as required. This may be how all pools operate now, but I thought it was super cool.

The first thing she got us to do was to put our faces in the water and blow bubbles: “As long as you exhale, you won’t swallow any water and it won’t get up your nose,” she said. My face was in the water the longest, apparently. I was cock-a-hoop – piece of piss! Next, she threw in some brightly coloured rings in front of us that sank to the bottom. She then asked us to pick up the rings, which meant going underwater. Now, I know what happens when you’re underwater – and it’s not good. Seven-year-old Pie was now starting to panic. I gave her a look that said: “Are you taking the piss, bird?” She was not. As the others dived in and picked up their ring with confidence, including the Chinese girl, whom I had now decided was a liar and no longer my water phobic friend; I just looked at the ring at the bottom of the pool. The longer and harder I looked, the sicker I felt. Eventually I looked up and told perky Aussie I couldn’t do it. She asked me why not and what I was feeling at that moment. I told her I couldn’t go underwater because memories of my trauma were coming up. I then burst into tears. She gave me a pep talk, outlining that now she knows what she’s dealing with, she can help me more effectively. She knows she can get me to swim. At this point, I could’ve finished the session, gone home and not returned, because it really was painful. But I knew by taking this step it would bring up my fears – and I have to deal with them if I’m going to win. I can’t yet prove it, ladies and gentlemen, but I do believe that if a fear is conquered, many doors open, some unexpected. That’s what I’m hoping for.

Once I learn to swim, I’ll be able to go to public pools with confidence and sample such old school delights as verucas, dive-bombers and the odd floating log.

Bring it on!



  1. Well done, you will enjoy it once you get the hang of it. One of the best form of chill-out exercises. Great when you have had a bad day, after swimming, you feel as if you have been tranquilised.

    • I really hope so, Groovy Chick. It’s taken a lot to do this and to open up to my fear on this blog. Thanks for the encouragement.

  2. Hey good for you!! Way to grab something by the horns.

    • Well, it takes a while, but once I’m ready to go to the hard places, I go all out to win.

  3. My dad is also quite afraid of the water. He is otherwise fearless. Because of him,I know what you’re doing is such a huge thing.

    I’m proud of you for taking it on. Hang in there!

    • Thanks, Oma. You have no idea what that means to me.

  4. Good for you!! I have one memory of swim lessons as a kid.. It’s sitting on the edge in the deep end, crying, while the rest of the class swam across to the other side. I hated it so much. The irony of this story? I worked for four summers as a swim teacher.

    Congrats on tackling your fear! You can do it!!

    • Thanks, B. Oh, the irony of becoming a swimming teacher for the Summer. You clearly conquered your fear. I’m looking to be a water stunt man when I become a brilliant swimmer, but I fear as I’m now Officially Old™ I won’t get many calls.

  5. Nice work returning to the waters. I love that you’re even willing to confront the occasional floating log of a public pool – but that’s really the scariest part.

    • I knew I could count on you to mention the floating log. Facing the log, as I’m sure you’ll appreciate, is all part of the rehabilitation process and acclimatisation of the public pool.

  6. Have you read the book “feel the fear and do it anyway” by susan jeffers?

    I recommend. Helped me a bit.

    It’s trite and “happy happy” in places but if you push past that the basic message is good.

    • Yes I have. I read it about ten years ago. It’s certainly less ‘happy happy’ than some of the books around from the same genre. I found the exercise of writing down daily the things to be grateful for particularly useful at the time.

  7. The important question is, are you experiencing the pleasure of a Tower Hamlets Changing Village?

    • Me or pie and biscuits?

      If you’re asking me then I’d have to say yes to shops and transport and no to the amount of housing thats been flung up for non-locals to park here during the week while they work here.

      • Tower Hamlets Changing Village sounds like some nonsense dreamt up by people who get paid way too much money to chat shit. I’m with featheredfriends on this one: improvements in transport and shops – great. Lack of affordable homes for the residents – not so great.

        You may not know this, To55er, but the real goal of my swim journey is to be able to use the private pool in my future home: a gated residence as befitting a member of the Tower Hamlets Changing Village. It will be christened Waitrose Pie Mansion.

  8. Well done You!
    I’m also water phobic, my sister having thought that holding my head under the water for me, when I was too scared to do it myself was the “best cure”.
    Guess what? It’s not.
    I don’t mind to swim as long as I don’t have to put in head under, not even a drop past my neckline.
    If one of my kids were drowing I’d go in a heartbeat to save them, but the idea of swimming for “fun” is not an idea that I entertain, not ever.
    Maybe one day I will be as brave as you and tackle this too… so far you are on ya own Pie … but I’m with you in spirit and holding your hand in the virtual world.
    Hey! if YOU can complete all of these lessons it *may even* mean there is hope for me too somewhere in the future.. so come on.. show me that you can!(your water phobic friend cheering you on from the sidelines)

    • Holding your head underwater? That’s appalling. Why some people think it’s a good idea, or a great joke is a total mystery to me. If I read you correctly, you can swim a bit, but you don’t put your head underwater?

      I’d better put some updates on the blog then so you will know how I’m doing. Thanks for the sideline cheer. I’ll take it from wherever it’s thrown at me.

  9. I am sorry that you had that experience when you were a kid, but wish you the best of luck in conquering your fear. You’ll be swan diving and doing the breast stroke in no time! 🙂

    • Ooh, I hope so. Thanks for the encouragement.

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