18 August 2009

"Can we get out now?"

One by one, I'm hearing of swimmers who I trained and competed with as a child in the 1980s returning to the pool to fight off the onset of the dreaded thirtysomething spare tyre. And, having weighed myself this morning, it's something I'm getting closer to doing too.

Masters swimming, as it's known, is very popular among adults who were competitors as kids but then gave it up for the usual reasons of beer, exams, canoodles and, more than anything else, utter boredom. You'll not find many kids who continue swimming for the sheer enjoyment of it once they stop winning races and beating their personal bests. After that it becomes a chore, just there for fitness, and when you're a teenager there are other things to consider than mere health.

One of the senior swimmers in Hull when I was a kid still ploughs up and down her local pool as a fortysomething Masters swimmer in Australia, where she emigrated any number of years ago. I recently heard of a girl who was in the year above me who has now returned to the pool having concentrated in her post-teen years on marriage, parenthood and a career in medicine. Now she's got her goggles on again and forces herself up and down the pool a few times a week.

I was a fairly good swimmer. I was decorated in 1985 by (spit) Humberside for representing them in inter-county championships (the certificate is still on my spare room wall and the tie in my wardrobe). I wore a pastel blue Kappa jumper for the presentation and had my photo taken alongside Jane Sugden, Julie Ellis and Simon Hill. What was memorable about this as far as the family is concerned is that my primary school headmaster, the utter twat he was, refused to recognise or applaud my brother's identical achievement a few years earlier, but was then observed picking up his own county decoration at a subsequent event for the ultra-strenuous pastime of crown green bowling. I have had an irrational dislike of bowls ever since.

The glory of winning races and events is fantastic but the training is relentless and thankless. Two hours at a time in pools of vastly differing temperatures (council pools tended to be too cold, school pools were like jumping into the fires of hell), doing 100m or 200m sessions against the clock until you felt like dropping down dead. It did wonders for your fitness, but if you didn't have the natural ability to go with it, then it was a rather depressing experience to go through these sessions with no real rewards at galas and competitions to show for it afterwards.

We used to have our own kickboards, the arch-shaped slabs of polystyrene which you'd hold in front of you while kicking your legs as the sole source of propulsion along the pool.

This would, after a little while, absolutely kill your thigh and calf muscles. Such boards were easily personalised, with every swimmer's favourite bands and pop stars duly written in black marker all over their board, with the chlorine eventually doing enough of a cleansing job to remove the scribbles just in time for adolescence to dictate that you no longer like Modern Romance and prefer Fields of the Nephilim instead.

The same scrawling potential applied to the pullbuoy, a figure-of-eight shaped floaty contraption which you held between your legs to prevent you kicking in order to improve and strengthen your arm action.

As it was so much smaller, you had to choose your bands carefully, as We've Got A Fuzzbox And We're Gonna Use It wouldn't fit. My brother, a rock child, decorated his with four simple words - Quo, Kiss, Vardis, UFO.

The pullbuoy also came in a self-assembly form, involving two tube-shaped slices of polystyrene connected only by string.

This type of pullbuoy was easiest to lose if you relaxed your legs for even a moment, irritating your coach in the process as you clambered across lane ropes and disturbed other swimmers in order to retrieve it.

The real sadists among swimming coaches would also give you small black inner tubes to put over your ankles, effectively tying your feet together, then make you do 800m with the damned things on.

This was agony and also, for the smaller and less strong swimmers, dangerous in that they were very difficult to get off your feet and therefore you needed to at least be in the shallow end to do so. The nozzle of the inner tube was still present, often leaving you with a thick scratch on one of your insteps after you finished your 800m, almost comatose, and examined what physical harm it had superficially inflicted on you. You didn't own your own models, they came out of a cupboard at the back of the pool and were filthy.

Other stuff you could take to the pool with you were stroke pads, which you fitted over your palms and were designed to help you perfect the entry of your hands into the water; and flippers, which were essentially there for leg strengthening but generally only got used to help you complete a whole length of a pool underwater and impress folk.

Training was not meant to be fun, and often only the camaraderie with the other swimmers kept you going. This was more prevalent at events, where apart from a warm-up prior to the whole competition, the only swimming you did was when your race was on, and therefore you hung about on the poolside or balconies in your branded club T-shirts and tracksuits, chatting, reading, taking the mick and listening to your Walkman. The journeys to and from these events on a single-decker coach were often great fun, with relationships often formed near the back of the vehicles and some risque songs sung. Beeford fish and chip shop has never done a more roaring trade than when hoards of wet-haired Hull kids who would pile into their establishment on a Saturday night on their way back from Filey or Bridlington, demanding jumbo sausages and chips and cans of Dangermouse cola.

So, do I want to go back to training? Probably, but it would never be like this any more, not least because Masters swimming means you choose when you go and how long you stay, something which evidently not an option when you are a child swimmer. It also doesn't involve competition swimming (unless you want it to) with a lot of these childhood swimmers returning to the training regime merely to stay in shape. Having balked at what the scales told me today, I think a new pair of (XXL) Speedos may be in order...


David Swarbrick said...

Just do it.

it is very very different swimming as an adult.

Kolley Kibber said...

There's still nothing like the tingly-fresh feel of a nostril full of chlorine, though. I thought that might get less painful as you grow up, but it doesn't.

The Joined up Cook said...

I have never really mastered the art of swimming.

I'll jump in and launch myself into a vigorous propulsion only to stop a few minutes later and realise that I have moved a tiny distance, am surrounded by vast amounts of bubbles and have created a huge space between me and other people who can swim.

Like the new look BTW. Easier on the eye.

Matthew Rudd said...

AWB, it's never too late to learn.

Jon Peake said...

I only liked learning to swim for the Bovril crisps at the end of it.