Melanie Phillips

31 December 2013

In at the deep end

Published in: Daily Mail

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This is the year when I’ll definitely, absolutely and without any shadow of a doubt finally learn to swim.

If you note a degree of over-emphasis behind this new year’s resolution, it is because I’m afraid it is not the first time I have made it.

Indeed, I have to admit it is the . . . but let’s not dwell on the precise number of years when I have made this particular promise to myself.

The embarrassing fact is that I have been learning to swim for a rather long time — and I still haven’t quite cracked it.

Many may wonder quite why I am making such heavy weather of it — or, indeed, why I was never taught to swim when I was growing up.

As the only child of over-protective and physically timid parents, I was brought up in a household where sport was just something other people did.

My parents were entirely indoors people. My father, moreover, suffered from various phobias, including a terror of water. My mother, however, believed that I should be taught to swim. So she tried to teach me herself.

Problem was, she merely taught me the only kind of swimming she could do — with her head stuck out of the water like a stunted swan, and always in the shallow end of the pool.

So that was the limit of my swimming prowess. Of course, it wasn’t so much swimming as a defensive manoeuvre against the terrifying threat of the water. And it’s really terrible for the back.

As I grew up, the opportunity never arose to address this unfortunate omission. My school did not offer swimming lessons. And I never took the initiative myself, because I was never going to be a candidate for a New Year’s Honour for sport.

I was the despair of my gym teacher, who tried and failed to coax me to stand on my head on the mat while my class-mates were shimmying up ropes and turning somersaults over the parallel bars. Put into goal on the hockey pitch, I would run away in fright from the ball being thwacked straight at me.

I was haunted by ‘what-iffery’. What if I should lose my grip on the parallel bars and fall onto my head? What if the ball flying towards me on the hockey pitch should hit me in the eye? And, of course, in water, what if I should go under and never come up again?

My fear of water was related to my equally paralysing fear of flying. And behind such phobias was the fear of anything that was unnatural.

Fish, not human beings, swam in water; birds, not people, flew in the air; and somersaults simply turned the world terrifyingly upside down. So though I loved the seaside, I would stand shivering in the shallows watching enviously as other children frolicked like porpoises in the waves.

In adulthood, on holiday I sometimes would venture into the swimming pool — and then self-consciously bob around in the shallow end while others streaked up and down and children did handstands under the water.

It wasn’t until my parents had died that something made me finally confront these demons. Other people derived so much enjoyment from swimming. And it was obviously so good for you.

It provided fun and healthy exercise; there was no risk of breaking your leg as in skiing, or falling off a horse while riding, or getting someone else’s ice skate stuck in your head in a collision at the rink.

So, at long last, I finally decided I was fed up with missing out on the fun. I wanted to learn to swim.

A friend recommended a swimming teacher who specialises in helping people like myself who have a lifelong fear of water, as well as those suffering from serious physical disabilities.

Steven Shaw has developed a unique teaching method focusing on breathing and balance. He does not just tell you how to do the strokes. First and foremost, he teaches you to be totally at ease in water.

And the key to that is learning to see water not as a mortal threat, but as a dependable support.

Slowly and with infinite patience, he has taught me to put the ‘what-iffery’ to one side. Discovering under his gentle but determined guidance the astounding fact that the air in my body meant I could float, I gradually learned to trust that if I swam under water I would, indeed, break the surface in order to breathe.

Step by step — first walking up and down the pool just to learn the sensation of being in water, then putting my face into the water, then floating holding onto my instructor Steven and then in a glorious moment letting go — I finally learned to do breaststroke properly. And what a revelation that was.

For I have discovered that underwater I am transported into a different world where all is tranquil and my mind clears. It feels immensely liberating and deeply relaxing. I am literally buoyed up.

Now I look with fresh eyes at those others thrashing along the pool. I notice certain men creating antisocial tidal waves are expending huge amounts of unnecessary energy compensating for poor stroke technique. Tut!

I notice how many swimmers in the pool, even in the deep end, are ‘stunted swans’ clearly too fearful to put their heads under the water. Some even rely on snorkels.

And I have become a keen observer of breaches of pool etiquette. There are the boy-racers of the lanes, who display the aquatic equivalent of road rage at slow swimmers like me who are in their way.

There are the swimmers who flail their arms so wildly that however wide a berth you give them, they still hit you in the face. And there’s my special bugbear, people doing backstroke who blindly cannon straight into you.

I am sensitive to these breaches of pool etiquette because, despite the progress I have made, I remain a very nervous swimmer. Though I do now swim to the deep end (and back), I still sometimes lose my nerve and retreat to shallow water.

Frankly, a lifetime phobia can be difficult to overcome. But I am determined to do so, just as I overcame my hitherto lifelong fear of flying (another story).

Overcoming a phobia gives you a tremendous sense of achievement, boosts your self-confidence and opens up ways of living that were previously closed off.

We surely owe it to ourselves to lay to rest our irrational fears wherever we can. Doing so changes you; and change is the essence of life itself.

For me, learning to swim is still a work in progress. This coming year, I promise myself, I will finally master it.

But ‘what if’ once again I don’t quite manage it? Well, just as being able to float and breathe in water entails learning to trust my body, so in turn being able to silence the debilitating whispers of ‘what-iffery’ entails learning to trust in the future.

Believe that you can affect your own future, and eventually you will overcome your problems — even though this may take a bit longer to achieve than you may like.

Happy New Year.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography


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Contact Melanie

Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
Northcliffe House
2 Derry Street
London W8 5TT

Contact Melanie