Column for BBC Radio Four "Home Truths" 26th January 1999
Of all the miseries of adolesence, for me no misery was greater than that of compulsory games: the ritual crucifixion of gym, humiliations of the high jump, and drudgery of cross country running. I hated sports and sports staff almost as much as my own unhealthy, wobbling body. Swimming I loathed most of all, as said body was exposed to the merciless ridicule of others, with the added risk of drowning thrown in for good measure.
Sport was something forced ON you by teachers, not done BY you, willingly, for your own enjoyment. Not one of those bluff games teachers ("come on man, put some effort into it") ever mentioned one crucial truth - that regular exercise and a sense of self worth are inextricably linked. You can't have one without the other.
I spent the next 20 years avoiding exercise in general - and swimming pools in particular. My worthless body felt horrible because I never exercised, and I never exercised because my horrible body wasn't worth it.
The unexpected arrival of a fit, goodlooking and much younger lover (who had been a competition swimmer at school) changed everything. The 34 year old lump of blubber I had become was gently coaxed back into the chlorinated water - at first for five lengths, then ten, and finally a full thousand metres a session. I learned how to breathe out underwater and soon settled into the long hypnotic rhythms of the training lane. Stamina and selfconfidence increased in equal measure - though that wasn't entirely down to lengths in the pool. The athletic lover eventually left me, but the habit of swimming never did.
As middle age slowly dawned on me, so did an awareness that exercise was no longer optional - a means of looking or feeling better. It was now essential to avoid looking or feeling any worse. These days, seized up joints unstiffen, endorphins race around my arteries, and unused muscles come alive with every precious length.
Parenthood has added a whole new dimension of aquatic experience. Newborn humans famously have an innate ability to swim - or at least keep nose and mouth shut underwater - and my baby son started lessons at the age of 3 months.
He sat on the edge of the pool beside another dozen tiny tykes, all supported by their mothers - who stood facing them in the water. As the young French instructor sang "'Urmptee Durmptee sat on ze wall... " he would wiggle his tiny bottom (my son, that is) in a frenzy of anticipation. With the words " 'ad a great fall" he hurled himself into the water, to emerge blowing bubbles and shouting with glee. His total lack of fear was astonishing.
Former no-go zones beckoned with hitherto unknown pleasures: the playgroup, adventure playground and - best of all - the Teaching Pool. Wallowing in the warm water with my loved ones, we would clamber on floats shaped like giant steamrollered frogs, scream down the waterslides, and cling on for dear life as the wave machine did its worst.
My son, now 8, takes all this for granted and swims like a dolphin, hotly pursued by his kid sister in her paddling ring. The Leisure Centre as place of leisure.... After years of late night training there, it now feels odd to while away weekend afternoons as the kids splash and have fun in the water.
Exposing my bandy legs and pot belly to public gaze no longer worries me these days - after all everyone else is doing the same. The pool is a wonderful leveller. The capped and goggled figure cutting past with perfect racing turns is that same woman I mistook, out in the café, for a bag lady. The LL-Cool-J lookalike parking his jeep outside will soon be puffing and blowing like a beached whale after barely a length.
Whatever - the main thing for any of us is taking the plunge. To my 34 year old self - or anyone else still shivering on the brink - all I can say is: "Come on in - the water's lovely".
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