How I learnt to swim at 36

How I learnt to swim at 36

Having resisted lessons at school and failed in a bid in his twenties, Sathnam Sanghera decided it really was time to conquer his fear of water. And where better but in front of the most glamorous members of Côte d’Azur society?

The setting is, frankly, idyllic. The old-world elegance of the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat, once frequented by the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Somerset Maugham, the century-old building set in a stunning strip of hillside once owned by Léopold II of Belgium, the padded luxury only occasionally disturbed by the roar of a passing speedboat or the barking of a Russian oligarch castigating his PA.

The hotel swimming pool isn’t bad either: heated, Olympic-sized, and filled with chlorinated seawater, it is surrounded on one side by a lush backdrop of tree-clad rocks, and on another by a lounge terrace packed with members of Côte d’Azur society sipping Dom Pérignon cocktails. I think that it would have been better if it had been equipped with a swimming pool heat pump. Perhaps that would have helped provide a different level of comfort and experience during the swimming sessions. The only fly in the ointment is that I am standing on my knees in the shallow end, clinging frantically onto the side. Next to me, a man in a wetsuit encourages me to explore. “Come in,” he says, beckoning me into the water.

I glance around the pool: on one side, three glamorous women, one topless, are sipping drinks, while, opposite, a man with water up to his shoulders reads something on an iPad. Pulling goggles over my eyes, I sink into the water. “Do not worry,” he continues. “Show me what you can do.”

The problem is that I can’t do anything. I am 36 years old and I can’t swim. Why? Over the years I have proffered various excuses. First, the best defence against drowning is surely not getting in the water in the first place. I’ve not seen the statistics, but logic suggests that people who never even try to swim, drown less than people who do. Second, I grew up in the West Midlands, and although they say in England you’re never more than 70.2 miles from the sea, when your family doesn’t own a car, or take holidays, and you can’t afford the bus fare into town, 70.2 miles is a long way. The closest I got to a meaningful body of water in my youth was the Wolverhampton canal system. Third, as an adult, swimming just never struck me as a vital skill. Being able to drive: essential. It means you can leave weddings early. Cycling: the best way to get around London. But evolution gave us lungs and not gills for a reason.

Although my main excuse is probably my fourth one: my hair. You see, I am Sikh, and during the one year I had swimming lessons at primary school I had hair down to my waist as a symbol of my faith. This was usually kept tied in a topknot and you may not be surprised to hear that it caused me all kinds of problems during my youth. Sometimes bullies would use my topknot as target practice for blackboard rubbers thrown across classrooms, or for sweet wrappers flicked across the top decks of buses. If I ever did well in an exam (I always did well in exams), my fellow pupils would point at my head and ask, “Is that where you keep your extra brains?” Sometimes complete strangers would cross the street so that they could squeeze my topknot and remark, “Oink oink.” But the biggest problem was that, undone, my long hair made me look like a girl. And when it got wet, it tended to become undone. So swimming lessons for me were less about learning how to swim, and more about keeping my head above water and my hair dry under all circumstances. I succeeded, but by the end of that school year, I was just one of two kids in Mr Burgess’s class who hadn’t learnt to swim.

As it happens, I’m not unusual. When it came to researching this piece, I found several accounts by black and Hispanic women in the US who claimed they never learnt to swim as kids because they were worried about the effect of chlorinated water on their hair. And a survey published this summer by the Amateur Swimming Association found that half of British children are unable to swim properly when they leave primary school, despite the requirement for compulsory lessons. But, tired of hearing people banging on about how good swimming is for you (“low impact and gentle”; “a great non-weight-bearing activity”; “the ultimate cradle-to-grave leisure activity”, etc), frustrated by living in a part of London known for great places to swim (lidos and ponds I am unable to use), I decided enough was enough.

Although, looking into the options, I dismissed the most obvious one without hesitation: lessons for adults at a local pool. In my twenties I had tried the Dolphin Swimming Club in Bloomsbury, and the experience was traumatic: my tutor turned out to be a 21-year-old female medical student, and when I got there, most of my fellow pool-users were under the age of 10. I knew what I wanted this time: a residential course in the middle of nowhere.

I would learn to swim in the way that Victoria Beckham has babies and Jordan has plastic surgery – privately, with no sign of work having been done. I was just about to book a course in Cornwall when an editor mentioned Pierre Gruneberg, one of the most famous instructors in the world, who has been teaching some of the most famous people in the world in one of the most famous hotels in the world since 1951.

The offer was too tempting to resist. Although, in the weeks that followed, it slowly became apparent that I had made a mistake. A fortnight before departure, I did the maths and worked out that if Gruneberg started teaching in 1951, he must now be in his eighties. How exactly was an octogenarian going to save me from drowning? Later, I picked up the Daily Mail and read that Tamara Ecclestone had booked the whole of the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat for her wedding, spending 600,000 on all 73 rooms, which prompted me, in turn, to check out the hotel website, and realise that, while I wouldn’t be learning in front of a group of London children, I would be learning in an outdoor pool in front of le beau monde. Then, on my Sunday lunchtime easyJet flight to Nice, I went over the three-day itinerary, which concluded with the ominous line: “Sathnam will be swimming by Tuesday evening.” Given the average child apparently needs 30 hours of swimming lessons before they can swim consistently and confidently, this seemed wildly optimistic.

Unfortunately, there is not much time to prepare in my lavish hotel room. I am taken down to meet Gruneberg at the poolside almost as soon as I arrive, and am immediately impressed. It turns out he is 83, but 83 in the way Mick Jagger is 70. He looks amazing, speaks precise English in an accent that veers between California and Switzerland, and gives an account of a life that makes him sound like something out of a William Boyd novel. He once worked as a physiotherapist for the French Olympic swimming team. He has been teaching swimming every summer and skiing every winter for more than 50 years. He still swims for an hour in the sea every day. And during his long career he has worked with everyone from Paul McCartney (“I helped him teach his daughter Stella to swim with him when she was a toddler”) to Ralph Lauren (“He had problems co-ordinating his breathing”), 70-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel (“She had a lifelong fear of the water; I taught her in two days”), Picasso (“He came to the pool with Jean Cocteau and made beautiful drawings in my notebook”), Robin Williams (“He was frightened of sharks in the ocean”), George Bush (“I gave him a massage; that was a proud day”) and David Frost (“I taught him to dive”). I could talk to him for ever, and to be honest, with the turquoise pool looming ominously behind us, that is my plan. But eventually there is no avoiding the matter.

“At the level of teaching I do, there are five problems with swimming,” he intones. “The nose, the nose, the nose, the nose.” I nod, even though this seems to be four problems. Or one, if you want to be literal. “Also: the nose, the eyes, the ear, the hair.” I see an opportunity for delay and take it, telling him, at length, about my problem with my topknot, adding for the sake of prolixity, that it took at least two hours to dry my hair once it got wet, and that once dry, I was incapable of tying it up again. There is a long pause after I finish.

A hotel guest who looks like Kate Moss tiptoes past. “I have never seen a swimmer at the Olympics with a turban,” Gruneberg says eventually. Then he picks up the rucksack under the table. “The thing is that you have to be happy with your head underwater, and that is where my salad bowl method comes in. It is about getting you used to the sensation.”

At this point, Gruneberg produces three Perspex bowls and fills them with water. He gets me to put on some goggles, put my head in the water and expel excess air with a face-contorting snort, which he calls “the rabbit”. The exercise is repeated in different sized bowls, with Gruneberg asking me to hold my breath for various amounts of time. It feels rather like being waterboarded, albeit by a benign, friendly French uncle. And then, before I can delay him, he is saying I am ready to go to the pool to “show him what I can do”.

Now, my position on water has always been that I’m not frightened of it. You read accounts of adults who can’t swim who have stories of being thrown into lakes as children, or nearly drowning in the South Asian seas as refugees. But, despite being unable to swim, I have been canoeing in Florida, jet-skiing in Jamaica, rowing in Scotland. But standing in the pool, I begin to wonder if this is true, the smell of chlorine bringing back a host of bad memories. Not just swimming lessons at Heath Town Baths, which couldn’t have been more ominous, being surrounded by a graveyard, or my mum trying to help with the purchase of a rose-painted swimming hat, or even the fear of my hair getting undone in public. But also a half-forgotten memory of the headmaster calling an assembly to inform us that a boy had drowned after playing on ice in a Wolverhampton canal; my brother being thrown into the West Park rowing lake by some skinheads.

Maybe I am frightened of water after all. Not that I can show it. Instead, I just throw myself headfirst into the water and start flailing about. This, apparently, is why adults are so hard to teach: they fight against the water and get into trouble. And before I have done a quarter of a width, I start to sink, swallowing water, and then thrashing about like freshly caught trout. In the end, Gruneberg plucks me out, me hugging his ancient thighs for physical support as he does so, the salt water making me feel like I have licked the bottom of a basket of popcorn.

It is not my finest moment, but, in the midst of the mortification, Gruneberg says something motivating. He glances at his waterproof watch and remarks, “You were under water for about ten seconds then. Earlier, in the bowl, you were able to stay under water for nearly a whole minute.” And you know what? This helps. When you don’t know how to swim, people are always trying to encourage you with statements such as, “The key thing is learning to breathe,” and “It’s all about learning how to float.” Useless advice. But being told that it is actually quite hard to drown is oddly encouraging. And most of the exercises I do for the remainder of the evening reinforce the point. Gruneberg asks me to try to pull myself down to the bottom of the pool, using the bars of the ladder, and it proves almost impossible, my body naturally floating upwards. He holds me down on the bottom of the pool under his foot for 30 seconds – a manoeuvre he calls “the happy submarine” – which makes me realise the floor isn’t far down and that my body will bob up afterwards. The hour-long lesson goes on for two and a half hours, and by the end I can kick off from the side of the pool, glide to the middle and stand up, without panicking. It is not swimming as such. And I am dreading having to look the people who have witnessed my wretched performance in the eye over dinner. But it is not drowning either. Progress!

Unfortunately, day two begins with a whole new set of humiliations. The photographer has arrived at the pool before me and is swimming an Olympic-quality breaststroke. The shallow end of the pool is peppered with kids, some of them toddlers, doing water gymnastics. And as I get in, with a blue float, I feel a keen desire to defend my masculinity by screaming out all the things I can do at the age of 36. I can drive! I have a motorbike licence! I can operate a sewing machine! But instead I find myself sheepishly telling one of the American yummy mummies that I can’t swim; she replies, “Of course you can, dear,” which is the typical response, in my experience. By way of correction, I sink like a stone at my first attempt. It is like day one hasn’t happened.

At this point, I want to give up. But Gruneberg calms me down, assuring me it is not uncommon to have to be reminded of the basics again on day two, tells me not to be intimidated by the babies – “Natural reflexes mean they instinctively hold their breath when submerged” – and says the key thing is marinating in the water, getting used to it again, feeling relaxed, and practising lots. “Smileage, not mileage,” he adds, somewhat incomprehensibly. And he is right. The more I relax, the easier it gets, and soon I have caught up with the previous day’s progress and within an hour I have, incredibly, managed to do the front crawl across the width of the pool.

It feels like a miracle. Unfortunately, my reward is to be taken into deeper water. Which is horrible. Not being able to put my feet on the floor is unnerving. The infinity effect of the pool makes me feel I might drift out into the Med if I let go of Gruneberg. Then the lowest point of the whole trip: I am presented with a pair of orange armbands.

“Armbands are not in my philosophy,” he says. “But they are good way of getting used to being in deep water.”

I refuse to take them. A few days earlier, Elton John and Lionel Richie were sauntering around this very pool. Over time, the hotel has hosted glamorous guests ranging from David Niven to Diana Ross. And now he wants me to put on orange inflatables in front of people who look like they have walked off the pages of Vogue? No way. At least, I refuse to until Gruneberg gives me an example of someone famous and glamorous who has done so.

“Do you really care?”


He flicks through his mental Rolodex of celebrity encounters. Eventually, he comes up with the name of two world-famous footballers. Both black. Which, in turn, gives me an excuse to delay, feeling as I do the sudden need to explore a question that has been on my mind for months: do immigrants, and children of immigrants like me, have a particular problem with swimming? In America, there is a charity, the Josh Project, set up in memory of a teenager who drowned, which points out that the “fatal drowning rate of African-American children ages 5 to 14 is 3.1 times that of white children in the same age range”. Gruneberg has told me that, having read that Ethiopian and Russian immigrants to Israel were twice as likely to drown as any of the other citizens, he once persuaded his wealthy Jewish friends to fund swimming lessons at the University of Tel Aviv, which he flew over to co-ordinate.

Floating at the side of the pool, still resisting the armbands, I come up with a number of things that might explain the phenomenon: in America, swimming became popular as a “recreational activity” in the Twenties, when blacks were routinely denied access to pools; some black women, like topknotted Indian boys, are keen to keep their hair dry; immigrants, in general, have bigger things to worry about than teaching their kids to swim.

I am ready to broaden the subject, to talk about how when people talk about race, they are often talking about class, when Gruneberg more or less forces the armbands upon me. He quotes Shakespeare as he does so: “Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look,/ He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.” He adds: “Relax. Do not analyse too much.”

Which isn’t easy. Every time I think about the pool or the sea or the people eating lunch nearby, I begin to panic and sink. But after five, then ten minutes, it works. I manage to tread water. And, even though I am in armbands, it is an amazing moment – reminding me of those corporate team-building exercises where you fall backwards into the arms of a colleague in an attempt to build a bond of trust. But here it is water and gravity that I am learning to trust. By the end of the lesson, I have managed to swim half a length, without armbands, and swum the width of the pool 20 times. Front crawl and breast stroke. Smileage is mileage.

Needless to say, my final day features a whole new set of humiliations. I am required to present my imperfect form for a topless photoshoot in the pool. Gruneberg summons a teenage female student to show me how to dive from the side of the pool and glide across to the other side. But by this stage I don’t care. I know I will never see any of the hotel guests again. And it turns out I like swimming. I like going from the heat of the sunloungers to the cool of the pool. I like the way your body sways as you do the front crawl. I like the peace of being underwater.

There are still problems. The etiquette of swimming, such as washing after being in water all morning, feels odd. I wish board shorts had pockets. I still can’t tread water without armbands, and can only swim as far as I can hold my breath. But having had to give up running as a result of an injury, it is nice to find an activity that involves forward motion. I begin to understand what a writer meant when she said learning to swim was a “metaphor for faith”: faith in gravity, in water, in yourself. I know Gruneberg was right when he said that all I needed to do to get better was to “marinate” in a pool for a few days. With a holiday planned in Italy, I intend to do just that. There will be children there. And while I will not yet be good enough to rescue them if they get in trouble, at least they won’t have to rescue me.