At age six, I made it into the school swim team, although I’m not quite sure how, because I didn’t really know how to swim. My mother decided that it would be best for me to go for private swimming lessons. There I learnt crawl, breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly, as well as diving from the edge of the pool. Over the years I swam in competitions because it was the thing to do, although to be frank I’m not a competitive person and I could have done without those experiences.
My parents bought a house with a garden and a swimming pool. Growing up I spent many a summer swimming in the chlorinated water. While I was happy enough in the pool, I was afraid of any natural body of water. Lakes and rivers seemed dirty to me. They harboured fish and crabs and who knows what.
I made an exception for the sea. My home town of Johannesburg is a long way from the coast, but on holidays we would make the long trek down to either Cape Town or Durban where I would frolick in the waves. To this day, I associate the sight of the sea with the carefree days of summer vacations.
Over time, the act of swimming became so natural to me that I forgot what it felt like to be unable to swim, and thus I was unable to empathize with the terror felt by other children in and around water. Indeed, I forgot to be afraid of water altogether. That is, until the day I nearly drowned.
I was in my late teens, hanging out with friends on a beach with no lifeguards present. South Africa has a very long coastline; it really isn’t feasible to watch all of it all of the time. I went for a swim in the waves, but after a while I realized I was being dragged out to sea. With each passing wave my head was plunged under the water, I struggled for breath, I started to panic. I cried for help, but I was too far from shore to make myself heard over the surf. I was rapidly losing strength, my gasps for air were shorter with each wave. I realized that I was in grave danger of dying. I used backstroke to swim for shore, keeping my eyes open for the next wave, drawing air in and diving down. I kept doing this, for what might have been about 20 minutes, before I finally washed up, several hundred meters from where I have entered, and laid exhausted on the sand.
I eventually dragged myself back to my friends who were quite surprised to hear my tale. They thought I was simply playing the fool. I guess the lesson is: make sure the tide is coming in before getting into the sea. To be fair, my grandmother had drummed this into me a hundred times, I guess I sometimes need to learn the hard way.
During a severe economic depression, my parents were forced to sell their house, and I lost easy access to a swimming pool. After I left high school I mostly stopped swimming altogether.
I started swimming again years later when living in Paris. Swimming laps is not exactly fun, but it was cheap and convient, as the pool was near my place of work, and it helped to keep me in shape.
In Avignon I discovered the joy of swimming in rivers in the summer. The rivers flowing down from the Cevennes towards the Rhone are lovely and clear in their upper reaches. Running as they do through limestone country, they tend to cut gorges which can be quite spectacular. Two rivers that I liked particularly are the Gardon and the Cèze.
In Marseille I would swim in the sea in the summer months. What bliss to be able to amble down the hill and simply dive into the crysal water. In Montpellier I was close to the sea, but just far enough away to make it a journey. I got back into the habit of swimming laps in the olympic pool once a week.
In the future I would be very interested in swimming underwater, exploring the sea floor, coral formations and marine life. I think I’d avoid using bottles in favour of simply holding my breath.
I always surprised when adults admit to be that they don’t know how to swim. For me, it’s like not knowing how to ride a bicycle. Even amongst those who can swim, I realize that many can’t swim very well. They may be limited to only breaststroke. I think it’s nice to have options. I would be interesting in learning how to teach swimming, both to infants and adults.
I would also be interested in learning about life saving. I’ve heard that trying to save a drowning person without prior training can actually be quite dangerous, as the drowning person may pull you down and drown you as well. I should probably also learn how to do CPR as well.