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Image / Self / Health & Wellness

‘I’ve got a confession to make: I don’t know how to swim’


By Grace McGettigan
17th Jan 2024
‘I’ve got a confession to make: I don’t know how to swim’

A traumatic childhood swimming lesson turned me off swimming for life, but some people can't understand that. Here's why I'll never learn how to swim.

I’ve got a confession to make: I don’t know how to swim.

Despite bewildered reactions from friends and colleagues (many of whom say I’m lacking a valuable life skill), I have no intention to learn. It’s not that I never tried to learn; I’ve taken lessons twice. But for one very scary reason, my feet will remain on-ground.

First attempt

When I was a child, maybe four or five years old, I took classes in a nearby pool. My mam enrolled me in the kiddy group; ensured I was kitted out with floatation armbands and proudly watched from the side as I took my first dip in the water. The armbands gave me a false sense of confidence and my young, redhead-self did ‘the tadpole’ better than everyone else. This would soon become my downfall.

My lovely swim instructor was so impressed that she bumped me up to the next level: intermediate. Children in this new group weren’t allowed armbands and they had already learned to swim with their heads under the water.

I wasn’t ready. My tiny heart pounded against my chest and tears gushed down my freckled cheeks.

To make matters worse; my new instructor was nothing like the previous one. This woman had no patience for nervous children; she yelled at me and forced me beneath the water. I spluttered; I thought I was drowning.

The fear of God (and water) had been instilled in me and I begged my mother to never bring me there again.

Years passed and I didn’t go near a pool. My family never went on sun holidays (not because of me; we’re just not that kind of family). All of our getaways consisted of city breaks and land-based activities. School trips to water parks made me nervous, and the water rides in Disneyland made me panic.

But for the most part, swimming wasn’t a skill I needed. My feet were perfectly fine on the ground.

Facing my fear

It was only when I was 17 or 18 that I considered taking lessons again. My sister joined a group to strengthen her own skills; it seemed like a good opportunity for me to try too.

The beginners’ class for adults in the National Aquatic Centre was fantastic. The instructors were kind, understanding and patient. They helped me (and the other women) to learn at our own pace.

Two weeks in, however, I decided it wasn’t for me. I didn’t enjoy the feeling of being submerged in water. I felt uncomfortable, nervous, unsettled and tense. Despite these feelings, I also felt proud. I had faced my fear. I may not have learned to swim but I was proud that I had tried.

Other people judge

The weird thing about my inability to swim is other people’s reaction to it. “But what if you fall into a lake?” they’ll ask. “It’s so easy, though,” others insist. Yeah, it’s easy if you know how and don’t have a 20-year-long fear of drowning.

Going forward, it’s not something I plan to take up. While I know swimming is an important life skill (one that could potentially save my life someday), it’s not one I’m prepared to learn. It’s just not for me. Besides, I’m rarely near water anyway. Unless I’m on a plane that crashes into the sea; I’ll survive.

I’ve managed this long, haven’t I?

Photography via Unsplash.

This article was originally published in June 2021.