Saturday, 17 December 2011

The Swimming Challenge: Big Fish

Swimming is the oldest sport in the world...OK, so maybe when it first came around it was used as a mode of transport and most likely didn't involve the four techniques we know of today, but in theory we swam before we could walk (give or take a few hundred thousand years for developing from the sea, via apes to our current shape of the moment).

Let me take you back to the Eighties:

Proper cold Winter nights from mid October onwards, the smell of chlorine coming from a plastic carrier bag on a lino-covered floor in the 'utility' room, the odour of vinegar and the sea lingering over the dinner table and happy happy faces under semi-wet hair...ah the joy of a fish'n'chip supper with the family after my mother had taken my older brother and I out for swimming lessons.

Dinner of champions.
I'm sure it was the same in many households across Britain in the 80's, kids as a populace the nation over progressed in their learning outside of the odd swimming lesson at school during weekday evenings at their local pool.

I had the worst trunks in the world but boy I loved 'em and my word how I enjoyed watching my mum stitching a fresh ribbon or badge onto them after another milestone triumph at Pitsea Swimming Pool.

Three decades later I stroll into the pool room at my local baths, I may only be 7 miles from where I learnt this most affordable of sports, but oh my am I light years away from the standards I managed back in the day.

Conscious of my belly folding like a decorative napkin in a posh restaurant, I quickly drop into the pool when I think most eyes are busy looking elsewhere. Now, how do you do this again?

Some twenty or so years since I last swam regularly, here is the challenge I was faced with:

The Swimming Challenge
  • Distance: 10,000 metres
  • Time: 12 days
Lungs are undervalued my friends, undervalued I tells ya! Mine were almost bursting after that first two lengths, I had to lean with my back to the shallow end wall of the pool and get myself back to below panic levels of breathing - how the heck did the old folk next to me manage to keep going?!

If you can swim to any level them I implore you to go to your local pool and give this a go; it's surely the most recession-proof of sports: trunks, admission, a towel from home and a coin for the locker that you get back = less than twenty quid to get started, and thereafter just your admission fee is needed.

What I really love about this sport is that it's almost totally indiscriminate; you can drop into the pool between a beef of a bodybuilder and a plump dinner lady and you won't know which is the best swimmer until they get started.
With children's sessions and general swimming scheduled in my local pools during the weekends I would need to hit an average of 40 lengths of a 25 metre pool, every week day for a fortnight in order to achieve my target, I just didn't know if I'd be able to make the minimum target let alone the fact that now I would have to exceed it to get the job done.

But swimming is a sport where you can quickly improve: when I got started on my challenge I had to stop for a breather after every two lengths, unable to reach my goal of forty lengths per session (I dragged my sorry arse out of the pool at 28 on that first session), but persistence would pay off.

Unable to manage the freestyle stroke (front crawl to some), I battled the waters with a patchwork breast stroke technique, made up from past memories and watching other pool users. This itself would put additional pressure on my hip and shoulder joints which would simply have to stay strong and see me through.

I'd frequent Belfairs Swimming Pool in that first week, sometimes before and sometimes after work and by the end of the week I was pretty shattered...and my right shoulder popped if I rotated it. I'd managed 188 lengths, and still had a 12 length deficit from the first session to make up.

A weekend break gave me the chance to rest up and try to get tips from friends and acquaintances on Twitter.

Back in the pool on Monday I managed my now standard forty lengths, by this time I was capable of six lengths without stopping, then another six, and then it would vary until I crawled 'over the line'.

That second week I clawed back the deficit with an almighty 50 lengths in my homecoming visit to Pitsea Pool, the place where I took my very first lessons under the guidance of their excellent staff.

By the end of the week I felt like I was half made of chlorine, the webbed feet hadn't quite appeared yet but I reckon my eyes were becoming immune to the sting of the chemically cleaned waters.

This last forty lengths would be my toughest challenge; with an evening of travelling ahead and a relatively short window in which to make my bid for glory I entered the water at Aylestone Leisure Centre, it was a Friday and I'd be pitting my whits against Joe Public during a general 'swim' period - most visitors in these times do anything but proper swimming.

I dodged mothers on social gatherings, teenage girls intent on catching up on gossip while pretending to do lengths, and younger kids dive-bombing when the lifeguards weren't watching. Each length came with added distance through sideways manoeuvres made so I didn't get poked in the eye by a brightly-coloured nail varnished toe or kicked in the head by kids trying to impress their pals.

My last few lengths were like a scene from Saving Private Ryan, suddenly the group of kids hanging out by the deep end split in two and seemed to go on a never ending dive-bombing frenzy; each time I headed into the thick soup I'd get clattered by a cluster of tiny feet and sharp elbows.

Exhausted yet triumphant I touched the tiles for the final time only to realise I'd lost my swim shorts. Just kidding - this only happened in the dream I had that night!

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