16 November 2020, The Tablet

How swimming helps this musician confront fears and cope with life

How swimming helps this musician confront fears and cope with life

Kate Keefe finds swimming an invaluable way to relax.
Photo by Ibrahim Mohamed on Unsplash

I have just had my last swim until at least December. Nothing fancy, same time, same length as usual, in a gym club with an elegiac atmosphere, with members all looking anxious. I didn’t want to get out of the water at the end, but I had things to do. I said a quiet goodbye to my pool and trotted off to the changing room.

I came very late to swimming. I grew up in the Midlands, as far from the sea as you can get in the UK, and there was no swimming pool in our little town. We went to the Welsh coast on holiday, exciting and exhilarating, but often very cold, and with lots of rip currents, so we usually paddled instead of learning to swim. 

We were supposed to learn to swim at school, but the nearest pool was half an hour away by coach, and I always got travel-sick, which didn’t help. I had several ear infections culminating in a busted eardrum which never healed, and I distinctly remember one sixth-former actually pushing me under water. I even remember her name, though I don’t remember any other interaction with her. I loathed swimming pools, their smell, their noise. I was afraid of deep water, though I loved the sea. And that was more or less it, until I had the children.

I was determined that they would not be afraid of the water; and I think it’s important for everyone to be able to swim, even if I was a total failure at it. They started to learn to swim at school in Kent, but lessons were only for half of each term. Lack of sufficient town swimming facilities meant that all the local schools had to share one pool. They would be just about to master swimming when half term came, and it would be several weeks before they had another swimming lesson, so it always felt like starting again. 

Luckily, we then had a posting in Africa while they were still small. The school that they went to had an arrangement with a local hotel, and swimming lessons took place every week. Above all, we had access to a shared pool on a little housing estate. It was small and rather grubby, but it was safe, not too deep for me to stand up in at any point, and the weather was warm. We took the children there often….and I learned to swim by pushing one of those little inflatable boats with the baby sitting inside it. 

My husband, a man of exemplary patience, was absolutely brilliant. A keen swimmer and dinghy sailor from when he was little, he put no pressure on me whatsoever, pretended he hadn’t noticed what was going on, and was generous with encouragement as I bravely moved on to unsupported widths and finally managed a length of the little pool, swimming carefully near the side so that I could grab for it if I thought I was going to drown.

I am still the slowest swimmer you ever saw. Rachel suggested that hotels might reduce the rates for me because it would make all the other punters feel so good, and with zero style, because I have to keep my head, because of my ear, out of the water. So I do breast stroke, slow and stately, and I deliberately avoid pools with any complications like wave machines or slides, as I cannot afford to get splashed too carelessly.

It became important to me to find a pool wherever we went to live, because it was a significant element in my quality of life. Of course I can manage without, but life is so much better with. It is the only place where people do not interrupt me, where I can be on my own and pursue a line of thought. It sorts my head out and keeps it tidy; it keeps my back supple and releases my shoulders after spending time hunched over the computer or the piano. I do not like company when I swom; ideally, I would like a pool of my own, but I don’t need it, as I can create the same effect just by swimming up and down in peace, ignoring anyone else.

On later overseas postings, we managed to find some arrangement that worked, either through hotel fitness clubs or shared work facilities. I have even been a swimming teacher for small children in a couple of places. I can do it because I know just how bad they can be feeling, and I don’t ask them to do anything that feels risky until they know that they can trust me. Margaret still recommends to nervous small swimmers our magic brick trick : I knew she could swim, but just lacked confidence, so I gave her a magic Duplo brick to hold while she was in the pool (other magic bricks are available). It worked like a dream. Sometimes I wonder what happened to the girl who pushed me under and hope she grew up less cruel and unfeeling. 

When we came home to live, I discovered that the pool I had used when we were last at home had been taken over by another fitness franchise, and they had filled in the pool to make more room for stationary bikes. This was terrible. Our town is still limiting schoolchildren to half-a-term’s worth of lessons because there is still only one municipal pool (and it’s right at the other end of the town), so I was stymied. I had always known that this might happen, and I had tried very hard during my last two years abroad to enjoy my chances, swimming in the moment, as you might say, and really appreciating my good fortune. But it didn’t make me feel any better now that I couldn’t swim. I walked about instead and tried to feel that that was as good. Only it wasn’t.

When we came out of the first lockdown,  I discovered that someone was setting up a new gym and natural wellness centre nearby. I didn’t think anything of it, at first, after other disappointments. Then I saw an advertisement which referred to spa facilities. That is an expression which can cover a wide range of options, so I checked, and discovered that they did indeed have a small straightforward pool. It’s expensive, and you have to choose your time carefully if you want to be able to swim without bumping into other people;  but I was swimming again.

When I swim, all I do is swim up and down, very slowly, but all sorts of things are going on in my head. My husband runs, and has always said that his mind sorts things out while he isn’t thinking about them, if he is running. Solvitur ambulando is a maxim attributed to Diogenes and St Augustine; for my husband, it’s solvitur currendo, and for me solvitur natando. I don’t know how it works, but I know it does; physical repetition frees the mind. And swimming is much easier than anything else on the knees and hips.

Because I am most comfortable in a smaller pool (I don’t keep my glasses on to swim, and I’d get totally lost in a big one), I find myself playing with numbers a lot of the time, working out fractions and multiples of the lengths I am doing. I have learned far more about patterns in maths from swimming than I did at school, and I find it mentally stimulating, but gently, which is relaxing in itself. My new pool is thirteen metres, which is not a number I’ve had to play with before, so that’s fun. It has made me focus on prime numbers and multiples of them. I go through my lengths calculating and computing, saluting the primes as they pass. If there are other people whom I can’t just ignore, I try and work out which animal they correspond to. Splashy aggressive swimmers are like polar bears or walruses. Many people are dolphins, fast but neat. The ones I find most irritating are the ones who swim up and down in pairs, chatting. These are yaks. I’d like to be a sea otter, with their joyful fluidity in the water (I especially like the way they sleep holding hands in a ring to keep everyone safe and together, a brilliant metaphor of family life), but I have to admit that my swimming isn’t like that.

During my last swim,  I tried not to think about how long it might be till I get back to my pool. I’m more worried about the people who work there, but the gym is doing everything it can to keep its staff occupied. They keep promising me more e-mails, fitness tips, class videos, which is very kind and probably very helpful if you are a gym bunny, but there’s nowhere that I can improvise home swimming. I’ve weathered gaps before, and I will weather this one; but I will miss it.

Whenever I do get back to swimming after a break, it always amuses me how quickly I start fretting about minor points, like other people chatting in the pool, or not being able to have my favourite wall position, when beforehand I’ve been so desperate to get back in the water that I haven’t even thought about it. It must be one of God’s problems in heaven, how to keep everyone permanently in a state of bliss and not thinking up improvements. I think this is one reason why heaven is supposed to be beyond time and therefore the possibility of change, but I reckon that’s a bit of a cop-out, and God is cleverer than that. I shall be fascinated to see how he manages our expectations, if St Peter lets me in. But I do feel that one available facility will have to be a personalised pool for anyone who wants one; and instead of running and not tiring (Isaiah 40.31, quoted so effectively in Chariots of Fire), I will be able to swim, not tire, and not get splashed. I will be a whale, stately, covering vast distances, and with music in my heart.


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