14 Jan 2016
Swimming is rhythm and blues.
As a child I learned to swim. I spent a good deal of my childhood in the water. Endless somersaults underwater. Holding my breath for as long as I could. Hearing the rushing blood in my ears. When I was nine I had a pair of swimmers the colours of the Australian flag. I wore them until they fell apart. For a short time I swam in a swimming squad. I wasn’t very fast and remember it as endless laps. I was probably ten. I could dive and swim reasonably well. I could turn and I churned up and down. At home in our pool, I stayed under the water where the noise was less until the pressure built up in my lungs and forced me to the surface gasping.
For a while in my early thirties I swam at Victoria Park, where you can swim outside all year round. I used to go as the sun was going down and swim slow breaststroke for a kilometre. The moon would rise over the city and I could float on my back and watch the stars come out. For while I went regularly enough and swimming was rhythm and blues. Deep blue early autumn sky and bright blue water.
I swam a lot when I was pregnant as I tried to counteract the fatigue and my sedentary job. Then I didn’t swim much. Not much at all for the last five years. But every time I did, I’d feel better. Every time I went into the water, especially where I could see the sky, my heart would leap.
Now that Benedict has lessons every summer we have found ourselves pool side, watching a small be-googled sprite try to master floating and making forward progress in the water. I didn’t always go to the lessons, as we tried to fit more into our Saturday. Occasionally, I’d swim some laps.
This summer I decided to swim. On new year’s day I swam some laps. Then I enrolled in some stroke correction classes. A week’s worth. At 8am. My first swimming lesson since about 1984. I had swiftly talked myself into it. But into what exactly? What did I want to do? Swim better and more often, small aims. I was nervous. Then I met John who was in the class with me. He was significantly more nervous than me and less confident. John seemed to me to be a reformed smoker. He struggled for breath in a way that can only occur with serious impairment to your lungs. He was gentlemanly and full of self-doubt. The first class we just showed what we could already do. I fared reasonably well in the breaststroke test but my freestyle technique involves swimming frantically like you are being pursued by sharks. Lots of sharks.
Our teacher asked us what we wanted to achieve. I replied that I just wanted to swim smoothly and easily and to work on turns. John looked pale, he just wanted to make it to the other end of the pool. We agreed to work on a few strokes and turns. By day three the teacher had clearly decided that I was selling my not terrible skills short and she asked me if I wanted to dive. Lucky for John he had to leave a bit early that day. I cautiously threw myself into the pool off the side and didn’t smack into the water in that way that can happen if your hands don’t go in first. Go off the blocks, said Rose. You can do it. So I did. And survived. Then I did a few more and some tumble turns and breaststroke turns, and backstroke turns then some breaststroke starts because hey why not? We stopped short of butterfly and my freestyle started to actually look slightly less ungainly after the fourth day. Then I had to remember to glide in the breaststroke. I had to remember to resist the urge to do anything but glide underwater in a streamlined (more or less) shape. The glide is when you are moving smoothly and is when you can move faster through the water. The strokes propel you forward but the glide takes you further. You must resist moving your limbs to glide.
At the end of day three, my legs were screaming. I went to Pilates class begging for mercy. I could hardly move the next day and after the lesson came home for a six-hour lie down. For five days it felt too much and I could hardly do anything else. On Saturday, the last lesson, I just wanted to swim forever.
It reminded me of the last major physical challenge I had set myself eons ago now. Yoga intensives starting at 6am with Peter Thomson.
Early morning after early morning,’getting the numbers up’ as Peter called it. Rhythm and repeated practice. Repetition. The first is the same as the next, and the tenth, and the hundredth. Precision and consistency are important.
Over and over and over. When you cried with frustration and exhaustion Peter would know that you were then ‘ready to practice’. Before that point, you were only getting the numbers up and preparing to begin. The experience of repetition and the emphasis on consistency, the first is the same as the next and the tenth is a lesson I learned from Peter. It’s the same now. The first lap is the same as the sixth and the tenth and the twentieth. That’s when you are consistent and rhythmical.
After the week of lessons were over, I was ready to start. Now all I have to do is get the numbers up.
See you in the pool. I’ll be the one remembering to glide.