I cannot swim very well. This is something that I have had to come to terms with in the last couple of weeks, and I have been contemplating how best to deal with it. When I was a child, I was a great swimmer. My mum booked me regular lessons, and I remember her watching from up in the gallery as I earned my 50-metre swimming badge. I demanded it be sewn on to my trunks immediately, so other swimmers seeing me in the pool would know that I hadn’t come to play: I had once swum 50 metres.
I remember swimming a lot as a kid, and finding it very easy, so it was hardwired into my self-image that I was a strong swimmer. This did not diminish as I went through adult life very much trying to avoid swimming as it involved showing my body in public – something I have always been allergic to, despite the fact that every travel show I have done required me to remove my top. For some reason, however, I always assumed I’d stay on 50-metre badge-winning form for the rest of my life.
I first questioned this when I went on holiday with my wife after we got together and she laughed at my breaststroke. She wasn’t laughing in a cruel way; she thought I was swimming like that to be funny, which is both an insult to my swimming and my comedic sensibilities. She told me that it looked as if I was doing an impression of someone I had seen swimming. After the awkwardness of realising that was me actually swimming, she offered to teach me, which led to an afternoon of arguing that nearly ended the relationship.
It wasn’t her fault – there is just something damaging to the self-esteem about not being able to do something as an adult that you were able to do as a child. She would advise me about what to do with my legs, and I would accuse her of patronising me. She wasn’t at all, but it’s difficult to say things like, “Well done, you’re kicking your legs really well!” without sounding a bit patronising.
It all came to a head while on holiday this summer. I decided to set the family a swimming challenge – 10 minutes to do as many lengths of the pool as possible. I thought this would be another example of me demonstrating excellent parenting by encouraging the boys to get involved in some exercise. I would finish second behind my wife, and the kids would learn a valuable lesson about the importance of swimming and competition, while I might also command some respect from my family.
What I hadn’t anticipated was what good form the kids are in. All three of them have regular swimming lessons, plus practice sessions with my wife, who I assume is doing her utmost to help them shake the underwater handcuffs of my genetics. Not only did my wife beat me, all of our children did, the youngest one while wearing a life vest. On top of that, when I finished my 10 minutes, I looked as if I’d just run two marathons, while my wife looked as if she was just getting warmed up. In the end, it became an exercise in how to lift an overweight middle-aged man out of humiliation.
Aside from my family no longer respecting me, I wondered whether I actually needed to bother doing anything about my rusty technique. I wasn’t planning on swimming competitively anytime soon, and the kids were doing fine without me. Eventually, I stumbled on my motivation: practise in secret so that I can get better, and then casually humiliate every one of them next year. In a life vest.