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Starting out

Lifetime of experience

Mary Clarke with Paralympic champion Ellie SimmondsAfter 30 years with Pilgrims Swimming Club in Immingham, Mary Clark knows a thing or two about teaching swimming. The 58-year-old’s expertise ranges from lifesaving classes to learn-to-swim programmes for babies.

A keen swimmer from a young age, she could sometimes be found in the waters of Grimsby Docks. After teaching her husband Brian to swim, the pair went to Pilgrims, but such was their proficiency they were told they were too advanced for their group.

Immediately Mary started to help with the lifesaving group as well as teaching adults to swim and now she is to be found at the pool four days a week, giving private lessons as well as continuing with Pilgrims and working with aspiring swimmers of all ages.

Teaching adults

Adults present a different challenge to children, says Mary, and for many it is a case of overcoming a fear of water.

“Almost all of them have been pushed in or fallen in. One woman had fallen down a well and had been there for a while. There is a fear of putting their face in the water so it is about reassurance, that you are going to be in the water with them.

“When they do their first width you know they are coming back. When you see the look on the faces of the adults who haven’t swum! It’s fantastic," she says.

Disability swimming

Given the spectrum of disabilities, says Mary, every lesson is different. The able-bodied are in there too – they are all in together so you can expect challenges in each class.

“You have to be on the ball and have a lesson plan, but it’s about having fun.

"Out of the water, one lady’s limbs go into contraction but give her a rubber ring and she is off. Teaching swimmers with disabilities teaches you an awful lot,” she says.

Age is no barrier

Teachers can expect to teach people of all ages. The oldest pupil Mary's had is 89. He had a severe stoop and wanted to learn how to swim.

“Eventually he learned how to do sidestroke and on his 90th birthday managed a full length. I was so pleased for him. Thereafter he was a regular, attending twice a week until his death at the age of 93.

“When he passed away in his sleep, he was in a care home and for the last year of his life he would always want to swim. He was always asking if he was going the next day," she says.

Mary's top teaching tips

For Mary, learning to swim is essential. ‘Your holiday is transformed if your child can go in a pool. It’s a totally new world and something everyone can enjoy together. You teach them to swim and be a person.

To help you, Mary has listed her top tips; advice gleaned from her years of experience in teaching. They are:

  1. Keep it simple. Give good, clear instructions with the visual aid of demonstration.
  2. Have lots of patience.
  3. Always praise and encourage to help increase confidence.
  4. Make sure there is an element of fun in every lesson.
  5. Never pressurise a child or adult or make anything an issue.
  6. Use whatever flotation you can and say, ‘Well done, you had a good try.’ This way they have never failed. They have to enjoy it because otherwise they won’t come back next week.
  • This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the magazine Swimming Times.