As a child, I undertook swimming lessons, as is obligatory in the UK.
The trouble was, I had little opportunity to actually learn to swim. I grew up in a small town, where access to a swimming pool was limited to an outdoor pool, that was only open May to September. Incidentally, my nana was working at the this same pool in June 1974, when a chemical plant (Flixborough) exploded 10 miles away, killing nearly 30 men. The local, retained fire crew were in the pool, at the time, my nana was given the task of getting them all out the pool.
Anyway, I digress, there was an indoor pool 8 miles away, which is where we taken, during a term at primary school, for lessons. I did not excell myself; I was the only one in my class who was not awarded a distance badge in assembly following completion of our swimming lessons and during lessons I was asked to get out the pool, early, by my teachers because I took too long to get changed!
Fast forward a few years, the old outdoor pool was demolished and replaced with an indoor pool. My grandparents, then proceeded to take me and sisters, regularly, I loved it!
I, however, never took further lessons, so I watched others and taught myself, abeit not very well! When I was 11, I found myself out of my depth and terrified, the life guard got me to the side of the pool, but since that point, if I couldn’t, the feel the bottom of the pool beneath my feet, I had to be next to the side of the pool.
I swam regularly in my teens, but then I went off to university. Money was tight and there wasn’t the money for swimming-I wasn’t however, your typical student, spending most of my grant and time in pubs and bars! As a student nurse, I simply didn’t have the time!
It was during my time at University, that I first started to experience health problems; I had been diagnosed as having mild asthma at 17. However, in my first year, I caught some lurgy that was doing the rounds in the nurses home, as a consequence I developed a chest infection. I recovered, within a matter of weeks, but my asthma did not.
During the next couple of years, my asthma deteriorated and became increasingly out of control, with frequent asthma attacks, some requiring hospital admission. Three and half years later, I was prescribed a home nebuliser, because of the unpredictability of my asthma, it also had to be portable. It weighed 10lb, the batteries took 16 hours to charge and last for 4-6 nebs! Thankfully the nebuliser that now accompanies me to the pool, weighs about half a pound and takes AA batteries and is just as powerful!
Today, my asthma is under much better control thanks to a brilliant consultant. I am prescribed three inhalers and two different tablets as my regular medication. I also have five additional medications, prescribed, to take as required. I carry both a nebuliser and an “emergency pack” consisting of a salbutamol inhaler and nebules, antibiotics and prednisolone.
After finishing university, I swam intermittently, going through phases of swimming a lot and then, not swimming for years.
In my mid 20’s I was diagnosed as having oestoarthritis, in first my knee and then, my neck and shoulder for which I had surgery. Arthritis then began to affect other joints, I was diagnosed with polyarthralgia; a degenerative condition of multiple joints.
I was working on a older persons ward, at this point, and I decided to move to a less physically demanding job. On moving jobs, I expected that the near continuous backache I was experiencing, would ease, it didn’t and then I started falling over! So it was off the GP and then a back specialist to be told that, I had permanent muscle and nerve damage in my back and that I would need to use a walking stick, permanently. To say I wasn’t happy was an understatement.
My physiotherapists advise was, to swim, so I headed back to the pool, however I soon learnt that myself-taught swimming style was actually causing more pain than it was easing. I was swimming like a turtle with my head sticking up, out of the water. I decided now was the time, to book some lessons in. I finally got round to it, two and half years later!
I first started learning at the local leisure centre, which proved to be a disaster, it was a tick box type learning and not learner centred. There was no discussion about what I wanted to achieve and work on and no real consideration and understanding was given to my health issues.
So I switched, to Swim NE, yes lessons are considerably more expensive than the leisure centre, but what a difference. I found myself being listened to and the teaching was learner focused. My progress, was much better, learning more in one, 30 minute lesson, than I had in the three, 45 minute lessons I had, had at the leisure centre. I quickly abandoned my leisure centre lessons and stuck with Swim NE.
Ten months on, I’ve made significant progress, in my stroke development-happily swimming with my face in the water. My stroke development is still an ongoing process, I have had to learn to adapt my stroke to compensate my the bits that don’t work well, my left hip for example and my swim teachers have been brilliant in supporting this. The severity and frequency of the muscle spasms have reduced considerably, since I started swimming.
I have gone through a few exacerbations of asthma, getting back in the pool afterwards, is hard work as I find that I lose confidence. A coughing fit, while underwater, can be a bit of a nightmare, but I’ve learnt how to manage this and I’ve also had to learn how much breathless may be deemed normal for me and when to use my inhaler, the nature of my asthma means that, I experience a mild asthma symptoms most of the time. I want to stress, that this is not be normal for most asthmatics and if you are experiencing symptoms, during exercise see your GP or asthma nurse.
My confidence has gone from strength to strength, not just as a swimmer, but in my own physical abilities. I am also more confident in the pool, I’ve lost the fear of being in deeper water and not being able to feel the bottom, this really showed last year, in Corfu. I went on a boat trip, the boat anchored off Anti-Paxos and I lept straight in to 15ft deep water!
Preparation is very much the key for me, before I get in the pool, I ensure I have eaten and drank enough that day. Just before I get changed I take 4 puffs of salbutamol and check my peak flow, on getting out I take two paracetamol and have my codeine close to hand, I understand that my joints will be sore and that this is normal, it’s also about knowing my body and recognising what is a “normal ache” and when my body is saying “it needs a rest”.
It’s also vital, to work in collaboration with your swim tutors, be honest with them, explain to them what’s “normal for me”, what your strengths are and where your difficulties lie. As I’m oft heard saying, I am not disabled, I’m differently abled. If you find your swimming teacher, doesn’t listen or respect what your saying, don’t tolerate it. You’re in charge.
I made this mistake at the leisure centre, when I was asked to 25m breaststroke kick, using a kickboard. It proved both impossible and painful. I extremely slowly, made my way up the pool, with the tutor standing at the sidelines, telling me to keep going, despite me reporting being in pain. At 20 metres, I turned my kickboard in to a Frisbee, flinging it across the pool and refusing to continue, like a petulant child. Thankfully my tutors at Swim NE have been nothing, but respectful, supportive and understanding.
Not only have I made progress in my stroke development, but also my distances. I had to basically re-learn to swim, I have achieved my ASA stage 5, 6 and 7 and my 25, 50, 100, 200, 400, 600m, 800m, 100mg, 1500m and mile badges. Am now aiming for my 2 km and 3 km badges. I’m not a fast swimmer, I never will be, but I’m swimming a lot faster than I would sat on my sofa, watching TV!
People do question why I “work for badges” seeing them the preserve of children’s lessons, I have found them a great of setting challenges and keeping me going when times are tough and they are a great way of quantifying my success, they are very personal and represent not just what I’ve achieved, but also many memories.
It hasn’t been easy, there have been times of frustration, where I seem to be stuck for weeks. It took several weeks, before I managed a full length of front crawl, I’d get so far and have to stop. The great beauty with swimming, you can punch with pool with frustration without risking doing too much damage-though you will gain a few odd looks!
My next big challenge is the Sport relief swimathon 1.5km on the 18th March, next year I am planning on completing the Great North Swim to raise money for Bliss.
I love swimming and I love the freedom it offers me, on land I may struggle, but in the pool it’s a different matter. People do question why do I need a blue badge (disabled parking) when I can swim a mile, unfortunately Adsa don’t offer a swimming pool version and I can’t swim to work. Learning to swim was the best thing I ever did for myself.