I’ve been swimming for more than 50 years. I love it. It banishes my worries; it soothes my soul and puts my life into perspective. It has seen me through bad bouts of depression. My family know that if I’m turning to the dark side to send me off for a swim.
Swimming helps my mood and keeps me fit, but more than that, it has provided me with an elemental connection to water and the natural world.
I started swimming in 1953, the summer I turned six. My father taught me in the pool at Mona Vale beach. His method, already tested on my older siblings, was simple. We didn’t have the sleek lycra swimmers kids wear today, but elasticised cotton togs, which were just one step up the fashion ladder from the itchy woollen knit bathers English kids wore. My father held me by the straps of these togs, exhorted me to kick my legs and paddle. Then he let go.
It was sink or swim – no kickboard, no goggles, no floaties.
Struggling to the edge of the pool was a glorious, wonderful, scary feeling. I remember the delicious terror of being dared to jump in the deep end, and doing it. I remember the puzzle of learning to float. I remember the taste of salt in my mouth, the bliss of cold sea water, the summer sky above.
These days, one of my local pools is the Ryde Aquatic Leisure Centre. It used to be plain old Ryde Pool, but re-modelling for the 2000 Olympics turned it into something else. It is now undercover, has an artificial river, a whirlpool, a water slide, a wave machine, a hydrotherapy pool and spas. On most school afternoons, it is rigorously divided into lanes, each taken with kids learning to swim or doing squad. The parents sit on benches round the pool.
Probably these children are better taught than my baby boomer generation ever was. But teaching swimming is now a business which may intimidate some parents into believing they can’t teach their children to swim. Maybe our increasing pre-occupation with winning means mums and dads are dreaming of a future Olympic champion. Or perhaps, with increasing work pressures, it’s just hard to find the time.
When I was eight, I did have three swimming lessons at a “proper” pool – North Sydney Olympic Pool. I learned what was then called overarm and is now freestyle. I loved the extra speed and endurance it gave me.
The pool has been preserved, but then, you could wheedle your way in if you had a convincing story of how you’d lost the sixpenny entrance fee. Failing that, you could sneak under the turnstile. The pool was full of kids dive bombing, jumping from the highest dive tower as the trains on the bridge rumbled above us. The chlorination was fierce and we emerged red eyed after each swim. By the end of summer, our hair was bleached a couple of shades lighter, with a green tinge.
This was around the time of the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. We didn’t have TV then, let alone the instant replay but one thing that hasn’t changed is the Australians’ pride in our swimming champions. I remember the excitement of Dawn Fraser winning the 100 metres freestyle. Dawn swam in nylon Speedos, without goggles, but with that same magical grace as Ian Thorpe has today in his aerodynamic body suit.
During summer holidays with our grandparents, we invariably took a trip to the tiny Victorian country town of Creswick where there was a huge swimming hole in an old quarry. The water was dark and the edges were soft, so there was an incentive to swim away from the shore. Rumour had it that the section in the middle went down sixty feet. When we swam out, we certainly felt the terror of the deep. I recently asked my uncle, who had also swum there as a child, whether it really was that deep.
“Not sixty feet,” he said. The depth at Creswick was always a matter for heated debate and fierce exaggeration. “It was bottomless.”
Much of our swimming then was opportunistic – in creeks, dams and rivers, when we went on family picnics or holidays. From those opportunistic baby boomer children we became hedonistic hippies.
As a university student, I spent deliriously happy summer holidays in the Snowy Mountains. I remember walking with my boyfriend towards Kosciusko on a hot day and finding a deep pool. We stripped naked and dived in. The water was so cold I thought my heart would stop and my brain would freeze. It was one of those stupid, ecstatic and unforgettable moments of youth.
I treasure my experiences of swimming away from civilisation, even the horrible ones like finding myself swimming with brown snakes at LakeEildon, or being attacked by leeches in the KangarooRiver.
One of my favourite swims these days is to swim with my dog in the river outside our holiday house. There, we are just two creatures who share a love of water.
People now do less of this sort of swimming. Notices give dire warning of environmental damage and the latest bacterial count. We’ve become more aware of the damage we do to the environment and the damage it may inflict upon us. Public authorities forbid swimming because they’re afraid of insurance claims.
Of course the big swim centres have times when their pools are given over to fun, when you see the elemental pleasure of the human animal at play. Little ones screech with delight in the warm bubbly pools, bigger kids hurtle down the waterslides and surf with the wave machine.
In my childhood, the wave machine was called the beach but now the big swimming complexes are monuments to the totally artificial environment. Their rivers come from nowhere and go nowhere. There’s no sand, no sun, no mud, no other creatures.
It is safe and comfortable. Rivers are polluted. People drown in remote locations. The sun gives you melanomas, real grass has bindies and sand gets up your knickers. But maybe this generation of children will miss out on the deeper, richer connection Australians have had with water for generations. We’re becoming observers of nature, rather than part of it.
I admit being compromised on the issue, too easily seduced by comfort. I prefer the old fashioned outdoor pools, but I love that they are heated in winter. And in my heart of hearts, I feel that having a cappuccino after twenty laps is deeply civilised.
I now swim laps three times a week. People ask me if it’s boring. I prefer to think of it as meditative. There’s something pleasurable about just being in the water, in doing length after length, the rhythm of breathing and stroke. But there’s a limit to my pool swimming. I long for the ocean.
As a child, I progressed from the pool to the surf, which was regarded as the main game. In summer we went to the beach every week, like a religious observance. We had blow up floats or inner tubes to ride the waves. It was an enormous thrill to hurtle down a wave; less of a thrill to be gashed by the valve.
The ocean is a playground, but its dangers are very real. Currents, eddies and the collapse of sandbanks mean people drown. I was taught never to swim across a rip, but I wonder if I’d keep my head in a crisis. Shark attacks make the front page and there’s the threat of blue bottles.
Beyond the seaside, the ocean itself is awe inspiring, beautiful and lonely, a place of myths and wild stories. Contemplating the ocean can imbue me with a deep sense of peace. Other times, when I’m a little edgy, I worry it could send me crazy. It reminds me that although I may feel I am in my element in water, I am not. But there’s always the wonderful primal sense of the unknown.