Water baby

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Water baby

500 Words: Shaped by childhood


Fingers of ice dig into my skin, dragging up the length of my body. The panicked heat of my head and face the antithesis of the chill of the rest of me.

I cling anxiously to the side, fingers cramped into position. Unmoving. Numb. 

I have trouble feeling my feet. My teeth chatter in time with those of the rest of the kids in the line. No solar heating consolation here. Anguished cries can be heard, sometimes outright sobs.

The lapping of water becomes the white-noise backdrop to the palpable fear.

Mothers with attendant younger siblings in strollers congregate on the other side of the Olympic pool, a long, long way away. There is no one to comfort us now. The pungent odour of chlorine rises from the water, filling my nostrils, swirling around my shoulders, engulfing my headspace. I struggle to keep alert.

Staring straight ahead, my bobbing face is only a few inches away from the broken tiles that are adorned with furred streaks of mould. I follow the crack-lines with my eyes, a game of concentration as I wait for the scariness to begin. Again.

And so it does, the instruction to stick faces into the water and blow bubbles. Breathe in…blow out. Breathe in…blow out. In…out. In…out. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Next, breathing practice. All to the count of three, shouted at us with a military-like precision. Faces in and then we blow bubbles out, turn heads to the right, left ear still in the water, faces back in. Other side. And on and on and on.

Our class is whittled down, day by day, as the cold, the barked instructions, the sniffles and nervous tummy aches take their toll. But for those of us that remain, we move on to letting go of the side, kicking our legs, using foam boards, perfecting arm strokes, dog paddling, diving in and safety jumps. Our progress is steady and sure. We are a child army drilled in the ways of water and we will obey instructions and achieve.

Repeat, repeat, repeat.

At the end of two weeks, when I graduate to “swimming” freestyle and earn my certificate, I feel total exhilaration. A whole new, wonderful, watery world has been opened up to me and it feels so exciting! So amazing!

As scary and difficult as it had been, the outcome of being able to make my way through the water at my own speed (and survive) was truly incredible.

And the fantastic thing is that that incredible, exhilarating, liberating feeling remains with me today, numerous decades later. 

Whenever I wade out into the surf, dive into a swimming pool or float down a river, I experience the blissful joy of my childhood. I remember those sixty minute swimming lessons at the local council pool – and how one hour there felt like three. I remember how terrified I was to begin with and I remember the journey of learning.

And as I dive under then float, go dog-paddling, enjoy a lazy backstroke or just muck around in the water, I remember and appreciate the wonder and thrill of learning to swim all those years ago.


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