I was genuinely scared about what was about to happen next. The last time I was in this situation I was 10 years old, so obviously it was a long, long time ago. I was on the side of a swimming pool having a word with my mate Michael when person or persons unknown thought it would be funny to push me in. It would have been, except I couldn’t swim. However, as it turned out, I was an expert in nearly drowning. After I plunged in headfirst, and discovered that the water was taller than I was, I panicked. I flapped around underwater and got stuck behind the steps, breathing my last. Just in time I was fished out, pumped dry by someone violently encouraging me to cough and, having being certified as shocked but alive, I was sent on my way. But that was just the start. For two years after that I suffered the most vivid nightmares about drowning, so severe that I used to wake myself up. And well after that, I avoided water at all costs (apart from the morning shower of course.)
But now I don’t want to be on the side of the pool pretending I’m having just as good a time as everyone who is in it; I want to join in. I also want to keep fit without putting undue strain on whatever muscles and functioning joints I have left. It was time to face that nightmare.
And that is why I’m sitting on the shallow end of a swimming pool, ankle deep in water on the steps, listening to Stephanie Dutton. And being scared.
Stephanie sees a lot of people like me, from the aqua phobic to people who just never got around to learning and she says she has helped them all. Will she be able to claim that after our two sessions?
Well, I’ll soon find out as it was time to join her in the water. I held on to Stephanie’s forearms while we just walked, chest deep, from side to side in the pool. She talked calmly about becoming more mindful of my breathing. I tried to listen to her and at the same time not get anxious about the ever-rising water level.
The first big hurdle for me was to overcome my fear of submerging. Submerging. Even typing the word makes me feel sick and it was only Stephanie’s calm and encouraging words that stopped me making a run for the car. Yes I know I only had swimming trunks on but that wouldn’t have stopped me.
We went through a series of in and out breaths, me holding my tummy to feel the in breath and allowing my lips to dip into the water so I could hear the bubbling on the out. The emphasis is working WITH the water, not against it. After half an hour of calming reassurance from Stephanie, and breath control practice a plenty, it was time to confront my fear. I bent my knees and – breathing out as instructed – went slowly into the water as far as my chin, then came up again, all the time watched and encouraged by Stephanie. This process continued until I managed to get my mouth in the water, blowing bubbles as I exhaled, standing up and inhaling, and gaining confidence all the time.
The next exercise was to float on my front. Stephanie explained that it’s much easier to float – and a lot less stressful on the muscles – if my neck and head were aligned with my back – and that meant putting my face in the water. After a bit of encouragement from Stephanie – and it seemed a completely natural thing to do – I put my face under water for the first time since The Baths Incident. This was a major step forward. I still didn’t like it, but I was calm enough to resist trying to swallow half the pool like I did last time. This giant step eventually allowed me to eventually float and glide, head in the water, calm and tension free. A good day all round.
Overall Stephanie teaches about greater body awareness and alignment, strengthening the relationship between the mind and body. And it’s not a one size fits all approach. “My philosophy is not what I’m teaching the pupil, but what they are teaching me because everyone is different”
The next day we recapped and progressed to a doggy paddle, and also practised how to end up standing in the water after the glide. This meant I could be anywhere in this particular pool and be OK. Well it would have done if I could get the hang of it. Knees up towards the chin, arms out behind THEN take your head out of the water. Easier said than done, for me at least. Stephanie was patience personified, gently pushing my bum under me so I could stand up without falling backwards, or offering her arms so I could steady myself first, while I practiced.
Stephanie specialises in helping people overcome their fear of water, and just one of a few teachers in the UK who has melded the Alexander Technique, the Shaw Method and Watsu (water massage) into a unique programme called the Mind/Body Awareness Programme. She is amazingly positive. “Everyone and anybody can learn – it’s not about swimming it’s about enjoying the water for what it is. Swimming will happen later after you have learnt to enjoy the basics and gained a solid foundation”.
Despite my feet scrabbling for the umpteenth time trying to get a grip on that solid foundation known as the bottom of the pool, I was well on the way. I did almost master the knees up manoeuvre at the end. As I left the pool I felt extremely relaxed, like you might after a yoga class or a massage and I was more than pleased with myself. I could immerse my head in the water without panic, float face down, glide, and doggy paddle. This is the first step in my swimming journey and the main thing is I want to get back into the water soon. And that – after the trauma of 50 years ago – is nothing short of a miracle.
BBC Tees Writer and Broadcaster