Learning to swim

I had enrolled for swimming classes way back in August last year. I was no. 5 on the waiting list, and had hoped that I’d get to attend my first class before the winter got a chance set in. That didn’t happen, and I had to brave a light drizzle on a cold, windy, winter night to get to my first lesson. I passed several pubs and restaurants along the way, and the snatches of warmth and laughter I caught as inadvertently someone chose to step out to smoke didn’t make it any easier. By the time you are thirty, you (hopefully) acquire enough experience to be able to draw on the past to create a rough mental map of how you are going to navigate a new, unknown situation. This also makes life a little boring sometimes. Fortunately, once in a while, a genuinely new event comes along, which, nothing you’ve done in your life till that point, will prepare you for. Swimming for me is that thing. The closest experience I could have drawn on was being inside a bath tub. Since that was clearly going to be insufficient (much like the quantity of water in the bath tub), the evening before my first lesson, I turned to the Internet for tutorials on swimming. Bad idea.

I was excited and anxious in equal measures and the wife, on my request, agreed to accompany me to the lesson. I felt a little guilty. She finds every encounter with dentist frightening and I had been unable to accompany her to her appointment for a wisdom tooth extraction just that week. I assured her that she could leave the moment I stepped into the pool, but somewhere deep down I wished that she would hang around till I came out. I am sure she’ll engage in some word play on my surname after reading this and call me guilty Gulati.

The swimming pools are in a modern facility with an attached cafeteria, different pools for instructions and regulars and a lot of supporting infrastructure. The air inside was warm, thick with humidity and vaguely smelled of chlorine. Our glasses completely fogged up the moment we stepped in making me feel a little helpless. I paid up for the first batch of the lessons at the reception and in return got what looked like a plastic watch without a dial. It was my key to the entry into the pool area and I put it on my wrist. On the way to the pools was a maze of cubicles that I could use for changing into my swimming shorts. The cubicles had doors on two sides with no latches. I stepped into one, thought that the latch was broken and left it for another one. Same problem. I looked around helplessly for some visual cues that’d tell me how close the doors and realised that a wall perpendicular to the doors had a small folding bench attached to it unfolding which locked the doors on either side in place. I was congratulating myself for having thought ahead and carrying two plastic bags for the wet swimming trunks but immediately realised that I had carried nothing for the clothes I was wearing. I carried them in a pile and looked for the lockers. The electronic lockers at the other end of the room, had a display which I could hold my new watch against to see the number of the locker that I had been assigned. The watch was also the key to unlock the designated locker. The problem was, I didn’t know what I would hold it against to unlock it. I kept touching it to a black knob on the locker’s door but nothing happened. Turned out, that the black knob, was exactly that - a simple knob to pull the locker’s door. The key reader that unlocked the door was actually a tiny circle with a blinking light right below the knob. I somehow stuffed my clothes and shoes into the locker and followed the sign to the instruction swimming pools. Before the pools was a corridor with showers and one had to bath before stepping into the pool. I could see the shower heads jutting out from the walls, but found no way to operate them. There was a black patch a few feet below each shower head that I again kept pressing my watch against, but no water came. The showers were motion activated, and all I had to do was wave my hand against the black patch (thank you dear stranger).

I met the instructor by the swimming pool and after checking my name against his list of expected attendees he asked me to get into the pool where some students were already pacing about. I was to start in the shallow end of the pool (115 cm, read a red digital display on the wall along the length of the pool) along with other beginners. The class had students at different levels and some of them had moved to the deeper end already. Three lanes had been marked along the breadth of the pool to keep students at each level segregated. I found stepping into the warm water very calming and went through the drill of inhaling above water and exhaling under it quickly. I could stand in the water comfortably with the water reaching up to my chest and the next drill involved trying to step go horizontal while holding on to the edge of the pool. It felt a little strange and took some getting used to. The legs preferred the well-honed skill of standing to this new floating thing the brain was instructing them to do. They complied while the arms had the support of the pool’s edge but once I let go of the support of the pool’s edge, they kept pulling me to the pool’s floor. (HORIZONTAL barked the brain, VERTICAL said the legs stubbornly). I brought my head down into the water too suddenly a couple of times and the force of the water hitting my face dislodged my spectacles. A momentary panic set in as I slipped, sprained my back a little and went under. Just then it occurred to me that I had also forgotten to inhale. I had read about it being quite possible to drown in water that you can stand well above. I had been quite dismissive of it, but while I recovered from my fumble quickly, I also realised how easy it was to lose control. My heart was racing and I walked to the edge of the pool to collect myself. I tried removing the spectacles and leaving them by the poolside but it made things worst (the instructions were in a mix of Dutch and English and I had to rely on seeing the instructor for learning how to use my body inside water). My glasses have rarely ever prevented me from doing what I’ve wanted but for the first time in my life they felt like a handicap.

Some of the first time swimmers who had come in the class with me had already advanced to floating on their back and kicking with their legs to propel themselves some distance in the pool. The instructor would splash water into their eyes to correct their technique. And there I was in a corner, still trying to use my limbs properly in water. As the class finished, some students tried to swim to the edge of the pools, while others walked. When I stepped out of the pool, I couldn’t believe how heavy my arms and legs felt. I couldn’t move for a few seconds and almost thought I would fall into the pool again.

Usually when I’ve found myself in a situation where I am in a group that’s raced ahead in learning something new, I just put in extra time to catch up. Since swimming is not something I can practice under the shower (until three days ago I would’ve thought I could), I would just have to hope that the next class will be better. At least I was not traumatised by the whole experience and am quite looking forward to mastering my body under water (it’s a wonderful sensation to be so aware of every part of your body and at the same time being aware of it as a whole). Come to think of it, there is something I can draw from the experience of having only recently learned to cycle!

p.s. While the colleagues find it a little baffling that I don’t know swimming (and that I knew no cycling either till a year ago), they are very supportive. There is good natured teasing about me moving to the next leg of the triathlon. To this I say that I see these endeavours as acquiring just enough knowledge to be able to harm myself sufficiently. Cycling from a spring board into a swimming pool is my current fantasy.

p.p.s. While writing down my confusing experiences just before entering the swimming pool, I was reminded of the episodes in Asimov’s Caves of Steel where Elijah Baley visits a more advanced human civilisation on another planet and fumbles to use the restroom properly.

February 3, 2013