Things I have done that you really should try not to – The Swim

I’ve spent a good deal of the summer renovating Jones Towers in the Isle of Wight, working remotely. Whilst I was there I agreed to try to help coach my next door neighbour to pass her bike test using the kind of skills I apply to business coaching clients. Not in the sense of teaching her how to manoevre around cones of course but to help her confidence levels, as she was determined to believe that she wasn’t good enough despite all evidence to the contrary. She passed on Friday with zero errors. Of course I knew she would.

But it got me to thinking about all sorts of things like perseverance and putting in the work and how JUST believing wasn’t enough. She really DID pass because she was good enough, it wasn’t enough to just be confident and wing it, she had to put in the time, prepare thoroughly and stick to the game plan. And have a bit of confidence in herself.

So here is my cautionary tale of the time I didn’t stick to the game plan, despite all the preparation and nearly came a cropper.

It was 1969, in deepest darkest Africa. Kitwe, a small town in the copper belt in Zambia where my father worked as a mining engineer. Imagine the scene…

My mum in Zambia with me aged 4 and my older sister 8

I was four years old and I’d recently taught myself to swim using the lunge forward as far as possible then put one foot down (then rinse and repeat). It’s a tried and tested method and when I proudly announced to my mother that I could swim and after a demonstration swim of the width of the Mine Pool, she rewarded me with 10 Ngwee (untold riches – about 20p) and whisked me off to swimming club so I could be taught a vaguely recognisable swimming stroke. Swimming club had a lively social scene revolving around monthly braai’s (barbeque) and swimming galas and so it wasn’t too long before I was entered into my first swimming gala – the under 7’s freestyle at Chingola.

I could only swim breaststroke.

I went to line up at the pool side with the other competitors. Competitor. The only other competitor was a seven year old boy. We stood on the edge of the pool ready, the excitement in the air was palpable (from my four year old perspective), the crowd sat buzzing with anticipation and the starter pistol (yes indeedy a real starter pistol – be still my beating heart) went off. Johnny next to me dived in and shot off with a very creditable front crawl. In a split second I realised (probably about the same time as my horrified mother did) that I had no clue how to dive and should have been allowed to start in the pool. So, ever the quick thinker, I elaborately jumped, in a kind of elegant twisty star fish stylee, into the water. I assumed the dive was to start the show with a grand gesture. So grand gesture the crowd got. Not the fastest entry but probably the most entertaining. I didn’t realise it then, or for many years, until my mother told me decades later but at that point the slightly sparse crowd who had come mostly to watch the more serious competitions later in the morning started to increase.

So having successfully negotiated the first hurdle, all I had to do was to stick to the gameplan as I was pretty respectable breast-stroker in the four year old world and head for the bunting half way up the pool which was our designated length. But I’d spied Johnny shooting off with his elegant front crawl and the game plan evaporated in a grey mist of panic and I decided that there was only one solution (convinced as I was that it must be a front crawl race, no-one having explained to me the concept, that everyone in that age group was able to choose their best stroke). So front crawl it was.

Of course I’d never in my short life ever tried front crawl so I took a quick peek at Johnny who was by now quite a considerable distance ahead of me, indeed nearly at the bunting, satisfied I’d got the grasp of what he was doing, I struck out.

My version of front crawl wasn’t dissimilar to my initial way of learning to swim but in slightly deeper water. It took the form of – lurch forward, windmill arms wildly, one foot on floor, lurch forward etc. The problem was that I pretty soon ran out of foot room as the pool got deeper and the stroke had to be amended to “sink like a stone for two feet, windmill arms wildly to get head above water, gasp for air, sink like a stone for two feet” etc. Of course this made me move more in the vertical plane than the horizontal and my progress slowed painfully to a (literal) crawl.

Now you might think at this point that either someone would have fished me out of the water and/or the crowds would drift away watching the most painfully slow swimming race in the world but nope, they left me to flounder (what can I say – it was the 60’s, there was less entertainment around) and the crowd increased again and started cheering me on. I have no idea how far half the length of the pool was (about 2 miles) or how long it took me (I’m told about ten minutes – longest ten minutes of half drowning ever) but I made it. Then to add insult to injury had to swim to the side because of course we’d stopped half way up the pool, although I did give myself permission to swim breast-stroke to the side so it wasn’t quite as painful or as long.

As I got to the poolside, my game plan in tatters, I became aware of the shouting and cheering from the crowd and looked back to see what race had started until my mother pointed out they were cheering for me. I was very confused – I’d come either second or last depending on your sense of optimism. Adults kept coming up to me telling me how it was the best race they’d ever seen and I remained confused, perseverance and pluck (and near death by drowning publicly) were concepts alien to me – four year olds only understand win or lose but my mum said she was proud of me so I was happy.

Later in the day there was a medal ceremony which we’d been asked to stay for. There had been much discussion amongst the judges and instead of going up to collect my second prize the judges announced that there had been a change in the race categories and that there would now be separate prizes for both the boys under 7 freestyle and the girls under 7 freestyle. Johnny went up to collect his medal then they called my name and I was presented with a tiny proper metal trophy like a simpler version of the FA cup, working lid and a black plinth, accompanied by a big cheer from the adults watching.

So that was my earliest “thing that I have done that you really should try not to”:

Stick to the game plan and don’t be distracted by others doing different things, stick to YOUR thing.

Of course I also learnt two things that I did unwittingly that you SHOULD try to:
1 – Persevere, you can’t always win but you can ALWAYS try.
2 – Jumping into the air in an elaborate twisty starfish shape does a good job in distracting people from the fact that you have no clue what you’re doing and gives you time to think. I highly recommend it.

And I still have that cup.


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