With Berlin marathon finally ticked off my to-do list last September I decided to turn my attention to another long-term goal. One that had been lurking under the surface for a while: to learn to swim crawl. For most people that probably seems a much more manageable challenge than running Berlin marathon 9 months after finishing cancer treatment, but not for me. Definitely Not For Me: this was the third attempt!

Attempt 1: Failure

2009. In a moment of madness I agreed to compete in triathlon; albeit a “mini” triathlon with a 200 meter swim in a pool. Considering I had never learned to swim properly and had a total horror of putting my face under water, this was probably more than a little rash! So a friend and I found a swimming trainer and started having lessons. On the big day though, in my panic, I reverted to my home-made breast stroke with head up (you know the look!) and was, humiliatingly, the last one up out of the pool!

Attempt 2 (2010): Blowing bubbles

Winter 2009-2010: After attempt 1 I avoided the pool for a while, but by the following winter I was starting to be irritated that I had given up so easily and figured I needed to attack the problem at a more fundamental level. So I signed up for water anxiety course. All I can say is that I’m glad no-one I knew saw me bobbing around in the warm-water therapy pool with two elderly ladies and our beach-ball shaped teacher blowing bubbles and gradually learning to be friends with the water! Generally this course was a huge success and by the end I could happily put my head under the water. Though, to Ms. Beach-Ball’s eternal frustration, I never learned to float in the water as my legs apparently have a magnetic attraction with the bottom of the pool and inevitably sink. Still, I had gained enough confidence to re-connect with the swimming trainer from 2009 and re-started swimming lessons. And then I got cancer. Chemo = no swimming due to the risk of infection.

Attempt 3  Part 1: Humiliation

Last September (2011) I noticed that our local swimming club was starting a “beginner crawl course for adults”: I immediately signed up.  Luckily the confidence gained during the water panic course had not vanished and I could still put my face in the water. To some extent at least. I definitely hadn’t turned into a dolphin! In the new class, every time we were asked to do a new drill the panic would return and a voice in my head would yell “I can’t do this” and the adrenalin would start pumping resulting in blind panic and mad gasping for breath. However, let’s just say that our trainer, Mr. Dictator’s style is the exact opposite of Ms. Beach-Ball: no cosy bubble blowing here! So short of giving up (which I don’t consider an option) there is no alternative but to force myself. With time I have discovered that if I do a specific drill regularly the panic subsides, though since we continuously get new ones, it’s an ongoing battle.

However, the magnetic attraction between my feet had the bottom the pool had not subsided in the meantime. Unfortunately, Mr. Dictator believes that the key to learning to swim crawl is a good leg action so, particularly in the beginning, we spent endless time doing legs-only drills – e.g. “swimming” up and down holding onto a float and kicking the legs. While everyone else was storming up and down the pool, I, at best, was completely stationery, kicking madly until my legs gradually sank to the bottom. At worst I sometimes actually “swam” backwards. To the accompaniment of the snarling derision of Mr. Dictator (who however didn’t seem to be able to identify the root of my troubles so I could do something about it). Talk about humiliation!

Attempt 3 Part 2: Determination

Frustration was building up when I heard about another Crawl Class that was starting. It sounded promising, with a bit more of a short-term but intensive approach and I decided to join that (while also continuing with Mr. Dictator). What a difference – no snarling derision here! Our trainer Mr. Empathy has a fantastic eye for spotting each individual’s issues and suggesting how to correct them within a safe environment where we are nonetheless encouraged to push our limits.  According to Mr. Empathy, the source of my leg issues is my head. Probably mainly what’s inside my head i.e. the panic which makes me tense and swim with my head too high which in turn makes my legs sink. Makes sense to me. So now I’m working both on what’s in my head and my head position. And there is progress, albeit slow. Everyone else progresses faster than me, but while there is progress there is hope!

Last week I asked Mr. Empathy if he thought I would ever be able to swim crawl effortlessly. He answered that it takes some people longer than others and I was one of those for whom it would take a long time, but that if I was determined it would happen.

I am determined and I’m not going to give up, although it is really difficult! Will-power is my middle name (well it isn’t really!) but I usually only push my limits with things that I like. I have no problem pushing myself when I run and I even love the pain when I push myself running no matter whether it is speed or distance. Swimming is different, I don’t like it (though I do now have fleeting moments where I do) and I’m forcing myself to push through instinctive panic which is truly horrible. Moreover, twice a week I participate in sessions where I am the “worst in the class”: generally a situation I would avoid at all costs (which I don’t think is abnormal!). However, although progress is slower than I would like, there are moments where it goes well and then the  feeling of success is HUGE!

So the swimming story is not over. Look out for Part 3, hopefully entitled “success” and coming soon!