Many people tell me before they come to their fist swimming lesson that they can’t put their face in the water. So far every single adult I have ever taught has been able to do it within about five minutes of arriving at the lesson. Some people have had a fear of this for years but for some reason, and with a little bit of guidance they are always able to do it. I am not sure exactly how many people I have taught but it is certainly in the hundreds.
Children are quite a different matter. They will not put their faces in the water until they are ready for it. This may take five minutes or it could take several months or longer. You absolutely cannot persuade a reluctant child to do it if they don’t want to. This is one of the main ways in which teaching children differs from teaching adults.
To learn to swim you do really need to be able to put your face in the water. This is a simple matter of physics. Our bodies are less dense than water, but only slightly. That means that most people float (there are some very rare exceptions). But any part of the body that is held out of the water is heavy. This means that you cannot float without doing something. If your head is out of the water you have to move your arms or legs to keep you afloat. If your face is in the water you don’t have to do anything.
It takes time to learn what the resistance of the water feels like, how to ‘catch’ the water, and how much effort you need to use to propel yourself forward, or to keep your head out of the water. Once you have learned to swim it is easy to swim with your face out of the water, but to learn to swim this way is not impossible, but quite difficult.
As I say I have never had any problem at all persuading any adult, however scared they are, to put their face in the water. This is never a stumbling block. But there is a point where many people get stuck and that is in allowing themselves to float. Many people find it very difficult to let go and allow the water to hold them.
‘There are two kinds of bathing suits, those that are adapted for use in the water, and those that are unfit for use except on dry land. If you are going to swim, wear a water bathing suit. But if you are merely going to play on the beach and pose for your camera friends, you may safely wear the dry land variety.’
How to Swim (1918), pp. 47–48 Annette Kellerman
Here are some of my great aunts and uncles, ‘posing for their camera friends’ in New York in 1919.
In those days, when seaside bathing was becoming fashionable, the thing to do apparently was to sit at the edge of the beach and let the breaking waves wash over you. The activity was considered daring as the waves would sweep the ladies bathing dresses upwards, revealing their legs. Here my great aunts seem to be doing just that.
Photograph from the Dutch illustrated magazine ‘Het Leven’ (bathing issue), 1937.
You used to see a lot of swallow dives, but nowadays you hardly ever do. This is partly because most pools have got rid of their diving boards and many are not deep enough.
It is a shame, but I fear the swallow, or swan dive has had its day. It seemed to coincide with the era of the Lido, of Busby Berkeley swimming extravaganzas, of Esther Williams, Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan) and sweeping art deco architecture.
I am just old enough to have benefitted from the end of the swallow dive era and remember seeing many beautiful dives executed from the high diving board at our local pool. I remember that moment when the diver seems to hang in the air, swooping upwards for a second with arms outstretched before bringing them together over the head and hopefully entering the water with the smallest of splashes. I even on one spectacular occasion saw someone do one of these dives off a bridge into the Thames at Twickenham.
I never did one myself. I didn’t have the courage or the skill. It seemed to be something that men and boys did to show off. I don’t know how they learned, I am quite sure most of them were never taught. They just plucked up their courage and copied one another.
This photo taken in 1910 is by Jaques-Henri Lartigue – a wonderful photographer, who was ‘discovered’ at the age of 69, although he had been painting and taking photographs all his life.
One of my first ever swimming pupils was a friend. He had never learned to swim as a child mainly because his childhood had been disrupted and he had moved around a lot and maybe no one had ever taken him. I didn’t really teach him much, just went swimming with him during one very hot summer. We went to the local pool which was a beautiful open-air Lido, now demolished. It had a sweeping Art Deco staircase leading to the changing rooms, two fountains and pink paving stones surrounding the pool. It was beside the Thames just opposite Eel Pie Island. There was and is a footbridge over to the Island. The bridge is arc shaped, like a concrete rainbow with metal railings on each side. Once after we had been swimming we were sitting down by the river when we saw a man walk up to the top of the bridge, climb over the railings and execute a beautiful swallow dive into the Thames