I’m not a huge fan of making January resolutions, but this year, it’s non-negotiable: in 2014, I’m going to become good (OK – let’s just say better) at swimming.
“You have to join a club!” a hundred friends tell me.
I ignore them all, of course. A club? It sounds intimidating, official and, by its very nature, cliquey. Can’t I just carry on as I have these past couple of months, crawling ineptly and anonymously up and down the pool once a week?
“No. That won’t work,” says one friend. “Swimming is all about technique. You have to be taught. You need to join a club.”
Urgh. Those three words again.
But how much longer can I continue to ignore, delete and block? Now it’s as if protestors are screaming inside my head: “Swim club! Swim club! Swim club!”
At some point, I know, I must relent. And then I meet 32-year-old Emily Chong, a competitive triathlete who trains with the London contingent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender masters’ swim club Out to Swim.
It also offers mixed synchro, open-water and water polo sessions and operates out of Brighton, but Emily invites me to come along and try the women-only session on a Thursday evening in central London. The club is trying to encourage more female members, and with the promise of the first three sessions free, all led by an excellently qualified coach and with a quick gourmet burger afterwards for those who fancy it, I’d say I’m beginning to feel lured in.
Two weeks later, it’s the start of my first ever club swimming session and I’m beginning to feel worried. The minimum requirement is 12 lengths (300m) freestyle without stopping (though if you’re not quite there yet, the club also offers lessons). It’s a feat I’m capable of achieving on a good day, at a push, after a double espresso and when nobody is watching.
We are split into lanes according, vaguely, to ability: in the development lane (that’s me …) there’s more focus on on technique; in the other lanes the focus is on fitness, though quite often coaches will give technique refining tips.
“Six times 50m free, 25m non-free!” comes the command, from Amateur Swimming Association-qualified coach Michelle Weltman.
Ahead of me, a ginger-haired woman takes off first. She’s halfway down before I blink. Then, 10 seconds later, a dark-haired lady launches into a length of front crawl. Next, it’s me. I take a deep breath and …
A 450m warmup ensues, and by the end of it, I’m gasping. On the rare occasion that I gather enough oxygen to actually absorb some facts about the club, I gather that here, diversity is key. Our small group (approximately 15 swimmers) is made up of women from the UK, Italy, New Zealand, Hong Kong, South Africa, Australia and Nigeria. Among them are teachers, office workers, students, accountants, civil servants, lawyers, personal trainers and retirees.
The standard varies widely too: a few of the regular members have swum competitively in the past but returned much later in life to the sport. One of these is Sue, in her 50s.
“Older women like myself can be intimidated by the ‘macho/high performance’ culture often found among men, where the body beautiful dominates,” she says. “Since I lack confidence in my ability, I find swimming with other women, where size and shape isn’t an issue, a more supportive environment in which to learn.”
Other members have recovered from major illness or back surgery and now rely on swimming to improve health. And a few, such as Emily and her partner, Suzanne, are keen triathletes, intent on improving technique, unlocking the door to the swim portion of their three-legged sport.
Emily explains: “I wanted to hang out with gay and lesbian friends in a non-drinking environment. Plus, other clubs are not so tolerant of people who can’t tumble turn or do butterfly (though I’ve learned those skills now).”
In other ways, too, it’s probably the most tolerant swim club in town: there’s no set dress code for a start, with some members choosing to wear race suits, others regular costumes, perhaps with board shorts over the top, or even a bikini. Whatever you fancy, that’s OK here, as long as you can swim fairly comfortably in it. And as for who you fancy? Well, yes, I’ve heard a whisper that some romantic relationships have originated via Out to Swim sessions. But make no mistake: in the pool, it’s eyes forward and focus. These swimmers are far more interested in improving their technique than chatting each other up mid-length, which is probably for the best, considering the swimcap and googles combination that makes even the most attractive lady look like a frog on amphetamines. On dry land though, things can get a little spicier.
“Of all the club socials I’ve ever been to,” says Emily, “OTS throws the best parties. This year, they packed out Ku club in Soho and gave out hand-crafted art pieces as awards. Previous years have seen the performance of dance shows in full costume, a ball at Hotel Russell, summer dips in Hampstead ponds, pubbing, clubbing and dinner parties.”
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