Learn to Swim

A guide to the Learn to Swim Programme

Niamh Cassidy's Swim London 2016 blog

Niamh Cassidy writes about making friends and learning a new skill through the Swim London 2016 project in Tower Hamlets…

About three years ago, I jumped off a boat into the sea off the coast of Corfu.

It was exciting and exotic and would have been a lot like a scene from a film, had it not been for the fact that I couldn’t swim.

At the grand old age of 25, this isn’t something I’m especially keen to admit. I’ve joked about it for years (it’s come in handy as ice-breaking trivia in many an awkward ‘getting to know you’ session), and while I had always meant to rectify the situation, somehow I never quite got around to doing anything about it.

A desperate struggle

Actually, an old boyfriend had tried to teach me in preparation for the Corfu trip, pulling a very alarmed face when we got in the pool and he realised quite how inept I was.

To his credit, he got me to a point where I was able to jump off the boat and survive, but only after a full 20 minutes spent dithering on the edge and then a desperate struggle to get back to the steps and out of the water.

I was proud of myself for doing it, but it likely would have been more enjoyable if I could have shaken off the sense of total panic and fear of imminent death.

I’ve missed out on a lot due to not being able to swim, and in the throes of a quarter-life crisis I decided not to miss out on any more.

The Swim London 2016 project in Tower Hamlets

Around that time, my friend Celia wrote about what Swim London had done for her, made it sound magical, and inspired me to finally fix things.

Still, I nearly didn’t sign up. I was worried about being partially naked in front of a bunch of strangers, worried I’d be bottom of the class, scared I wouldn’t be able to do it all.

I’m glad I took the (literal) plunge.

Undoubtedly, the best thing about Swim London is how social and supportive it is. I found this from the very first – just being in a room with a dozen other people also in their twenties, and who also couldn’t swim, was quietly cathartic.

Suddenly, it wasn’t my weird little secret anymore, and although we all had different fears, different goals, and different reasons for being there, it made the whole thing much less daunting.

From that first day of being scared to get in the water, scared to let go of the side, scared to even look at the deep end, it’s incredible to see how far we’ve all come.

I remember being chuffed when I’d mastered floating in the first session (sounds easy, isn’t); 12 weeks later, front crawling 50 metres in an Olympic pool doesn’t faze me.

Every milestone is its own little victory and seeing everyone make those marked improvements day on day, week on week, makes getting out of bed on a Sunday morning and braving the icy waters of York Hall worthwhile.

Awesome as we are, though, there’s no way any of us would have made the progress we have, and as quickly as we have, without the Swim London team.

Progress in 12 weeks

Our teachers Emma, Will and Celia have been on hand every stroke of the way to encourage, support and push us, from the little stuff – I still sometimes need Will to help me put my swimming cap on – to the big.

That people who 12 weeks ago wouldn’t even put their faces in the water can now manage front crawl, breaststroke, backstroke, treading water, tumble turns and even water polo says a lot.

In 12 weeks, they’ve turned us into swimmers. Some of our group will be swimming relay in a special event at the European Championships next month – not quite at Michael Phelps’ level, admittedly, but with a confidence, skill set and love of the sport none of us had at the start of the year.

More importantly, the end of the course won’t be the end of the story; we’re all keen to keep swimming and keep improving.

I wouldn’t think twice about jumping off that boat now, and it’s not only being able to swim, but able to enjoy it, that makes me so grateful to Swim London.

There is one downside, of course: I’m going to have to think of some new ice-breaking trivia.