Life

Nuala McCann: Somehow I stopped thinking this swimming lark was boring

I gave swimming a miss until a physiotherapist suggested that my wonky hip needed a pool and a set of big flippers. Elegant it wasn't. Small children watched goggle-eyed as I put on the dreaded flippers and hopped into the pool like a fat Kermit.

At school, we had swimming lessons in Primary 6

ON A sunny beach in the wilderness of long ago Connemara, my aunt taught me to swim. We had the whole shore to ourselves.

She wore a black suit and a black hat splodged with floppy rubber flowers and hers was the no-nonsense approach. She was a maths teacher and was matter of fact. She stepped out with authority.

I was eight years old and I trotted down at her heels to the sea and followed her into the white horses of waves. We started off with me holding on to her waist and she telling me to kick, we moved on slowly.

I can still hear her instructions. I can still remember lying, a starfish girl in the waves gazing up at the sun’s golden eye.

She taught me the rules. Always swim parallel to the shore, never swim out to sea, she’d say.

When you visit a beach for the first time, look at how the shore dips towards the sea. If it’s a steep slope that means there’s a shelf and a drop and you’ll soon find yourself out of your depth. Those same rules echo down the years.

I didn’t love swimming back then. On rainy Saturdays, we went to the local pool, splashed in the water and dared each other to jump off the top diving board. Ever the coward, I never did.

Then, hair wet and reeking of chlorine, we treated ourselves to a cup of powdered hot chocolate from the vending machine – so sophisticated – and walked home.

At school, we had swimming lessons in Primary 6. It was a time when my mother caved into my passion for a navy bikini with a fan fan pleated white skirt from a stall at the local variety market. I wore it to school swimming lessons.

Sadly, tragedy struck: I lost the skirted bottoms. I had the teacher and the whole class searching. We couldn’t find them anywhere. I was distraught until I nipped to the loo after lunch and discovered they were on me.

There’s an old ad about a girdle in the days when women wore such things, where the woman can’t get on board the plane to somewhere exotic.

“I can’t go, I’ve forgotten my girdle,” she cries.

Then a minute later, realisation strikes: “Oh, I’ve got it on.”

That was me, mortified, after Primary 6 swimmers.

And yes, I’ve dipped my toe in many oceans since then – there’s a very amusing story about a large wave and a bikini in Biarritz.

And there are stories of summer holidays spent lying on Greek beaches and marvelling at the azure blue of the sea and the glitter of the sun on the waves.

But I gave swimming a miss until a physiotherapist suggested that my wonky hip needed a pool and a set of big flippers.

Elegant it wasn’t. Small children watched goggle-eyed as I put on the dreaded flippers and hopped into the pool like a fat Kermit.

At first it was boring, so boring... it was the smell of chlorine and the up and down and the lane hoggers who clearly thought they owned the pool.

But the love crept up on me.

Somehow, I stopped thinking this swimming lark was boring, it was slow and rhythmic, a gentle meditation.

Once in the water my head cleared, my thoughts drifted, I just kept going.

Last summer, I went wild swimming in a river in France. You wouldn’t have caught me in a local river – much too freezing for me. But there is something about slipping otter-like into a river and striking out into the water as a kingfisher darts past your nose and a water snake slips past your fingers.

You fall in love with the freedom of it all.

They say the plunge into freezing water does wonders for your mental health. Liz Richardson’s theatre show, Swim, explores the healing power of a cold dip – it featured in the Guardian recently.

Wild swimming has become a way of dealing with grief, a moment when you put your head under the water and forget everything.

It’s not easy. The pain of icy water is like knives, she says, thousands of knives. And then you get out and the wind hits you hard and you feel alive – freezing and shivering but totally exhilarated.

It’s a “no knickers feeling”, she says. It’s free and wonderful. I get it, I honestly do.

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