Its not the kind of pool you can dive into, so I walked in to the water at the shallow end and started swimming when it reached my hips. Back when it was built in 1992 it was perhaps designed to emulate a beach with its vaguely nauseating tropical colours. It’s now fading a little and showing its age with tiles missing – still functional and happy to be open and being loved by the daily swimmers. Towards the back a wave machine hides behind dark vents in the deep end. Luckily in the 2 hour early morning session, the orange and blue fibreglass slides are switched off and silently snake their way round the high ceilings. I swim towards the floating lane markers and start charting the waters with slow strokes. Although miles away, this local swimming pool here in a corner of zone 5 is in many ways like the leisure pool I learned to swim in as a child. A little too warm and chlorinated, stubbing toes on tiles and showers that frustratingly switch off after 10 seconds, leaving you holding down the button to rinse away the bleachy smell.
I don’t think I come from a ‘swimmy’ family – ok let’s be realistic I don’t come from a sporty family. Although my mum swam for the county as a girl (can we verify this?) and my Dad in his retirement is now a fully-fledged-lycra-clad bike fanatic in a cycling club. My paternal grandma only learnt to swim when she was in her 70s so she could swim with me and my brother.
I think swimming played a big part in my childhood. Water-babies, 100 metre badges, diving classes, life-saving with junior school which seemed to only involve being made to swim a length in your pajamas and dive for a brick made of rubber. We spent a lot of time in that leisure centre as a family and it’s comforting that my nephew learned to swim there 30 years later. Then school swimming galas – breaststroke saw me getting placed last in the heat. Coming home afterwards I sat on the kitchen worktop eating the top half of a white bread bun spread with tomato paste and grilled with grated cheese. I remember feeling sad and sorry for myself for letting everyone down– but I also remember how nice the mini-pizza snack was. The snap of swimming cap, the smell of talc, the humiliation of being forced to the dreaded wear verruca sock and being treated like a leper. I swear everyone had a verruca and those kids that refused to wear the dammed sock were the cause of constant plagues circulating on those wet tiles.
Most people have a similar relationship with exercise. The new year is a time of battles with the body and mind, I have reset my intention and dabbled again with swimming. But its complicated. You love exercise as a kid, because its just activity, fun and freeing, it wears you out. But nothing prepares you when puberty hits like a sledge hammer and the thought of standing in front of your class mates in basically your pants is horrifying. You should have seen the notes I forged at comprehensive school that managed to get me excused from any sporting activity, my fiction was invented here.
I think I stopped swimming at 13 and apart from holidays, didn’t swim properly again until I was 29. By then I was mad enough to sign up for a triathlon and swam in cold water to train at Parliament Lido. That was freezing, in April it was 13c and found myself braced in an expensive (secondhand) wetsuit, neon cap and goggles. Like a superhero armed for the chilly water battle. Slowly in those cold mornings and late evening swims in the lido I learned to fall back in love with the rhythm of swimming. It wasn’t without its humiliation, to be in a lane with the super-triathlon swimmers twice as fast as me, overtaking, splashing their skilled arrogance with arms flying outwards and then under like a pack of wet skinned seals. But I did it, in spite of the mucky smell of the Thames on the day of the race miraculously I didn’t drown or get kicked in the face. The gun set off and 200 people swam like a hungry snapping school of piranhas. I even signed up for other races, even swimming in Dorney Lake smelled much cleaner than the Thames.
I think I had a favourite swim last year. It was on Easter Sunday in Ermoupoli, after sipping hot coffee in Maouli Square. The café owner asked us very sweetly if we didn’t mind just leaving the cups when we’d finished as he wanted to shut up to head home to eat Easter lunch with his family. Who could argue with that? Eventually we sauntered off in the bright sunlight to Vaporia, past the blue domed Agios Nikolaos church. There is a bathing platform here that gets crowded in summer, but here on an Orthodox holiday in spring it was near empty. Just a handful of others sitting in the sun and a brave lady in a flowery bathing cap swimming slow breast-stroke in the turquoise water. I stripped off to my cossie in the breeze and timidly at first dangled a foot in the water. It was fresh, cold and clear. I felt reborn, baptised – my first swim of 2017 in the Aegean in April. Like lizards warming our cold blood, we laid out drying in the sun afterwards on the concrete of the closed Asteria Café.
In the summer I swam over the same section of Kini bay most mornings. Day after day, charting laps between the orange buoys until I had memorised the topography of the rocks and sand and could say greetings to the fishes. Breath and rhythm become an underwater meditation. I kept swimming until my arms were tight and felt strung like a bow. Then I would sit quietly in the beach crunching tiny cracking bubbles in my neck, stretching my legs out on the warming sand.
I think sometimes I have lost my love for exercise and suddenly surprise myself as I fall back in love with its endorphins every so often. I need it the most when it takes me away from the fuzz of every day and creates breathing space.
A few days ago after my morning swim, I stood under the unisex showers with shampoo in my eyes. I glimpsed the future…there it was; a bundle of noise – gossiping, putting on swimming caps, snapping costume straps into place. Loud voices talking over the changing room “How’s slimming world, Pat?’ “I’ve lost 7 pounds!”. Then one lady turned to me “Is the water warm, love?” I beamed back “Positively tropical today!” I was a bit taken aback, having spent a few years of my adult life in posh-gyms, crap pay-as-you-go gyms, try-hard gyms, yoga-death-stare-silence gyms. I hadn’t heard people chat like this in changing rooms ever…well maybe since I was back in the pool of my childhood. This was leisure as it should be – fitness and fun. No pressure.
I longed to stay all morning and hang out with these spirited retirees, all full of life and laughter. As I was leaving, the Shirelles ‘Will you love me tomorrow’ sang out over the loudspeakers and the instructor shouted “let’s get going girls” Aqua-fit is the future, I can’t wait to be retired.