By Rachel Flynn


I was watching the swimming championships not too long ago – watching all those fit and gorgeous girls and boys vying for a trip to Rio, doing their personal bests (PBs) and reducing their times by hundredths of a second. I saw them smile and wave to the camera before the race, then politely answer questions after their heats, chests heaving and breathing. We all know these kids have been swimming for their whole lives, which in some cases is only fourteen or fifteen years. Their parents had got up in the dark to drive them to training, for years and years. Such dedication. What a huge effort.


My brother and I learnt to swim in the river when we were kids. Our big sister sat on a rock and shouted instructions: “Put your arms out the front like this, with your hands together … put your face in the water … now kick … now do your arms over … that’s right.” I imagine our mother might have told her to “take those kids down the river and teach them to swim.”


The river was murky, being downstream from where the local dairy farmer took his cows for a drink. If you opened your eyes there was a greenish glow and you couldn’t see past your fingertips. There were snags looming beneath us, ready to trap our feet if we let them drift down. The surface was sun-warmed, but beneath that it was chilled. We always wore our buckled-up plastic sandals to walk in and out, but we’d never attempt to stand on the bottom. Who knew what would be down there, or even where the bottom was?


I learnt to swim again in grade three. We would go to the local pool (outdoor, unheated), as part of the Herald Learn to Swim campaign. Most of the instructions were given while we lay on the concrete. We didn’t have a trainer or a coach – just the class teacher, fully clothed and standing upright, demonstrating the arm-over action with one arm and the other holding the instruction leaflet.


Then it was jumping, or being pushed, into the shallow end of the freezing pool to hold onto the edge and practise kicking. I don’t think we went through all of the twelve steps in the program, or the ten steps in the lesson plan, but it finished a few weeks later with us taking turns to swim across the pool. Anyone who made it without touching the bottom or drowning was awarded the Herald Certificate at a school assembly.


My mother was satisfied that it was now safe to leave us at the pool while she went into town for the groceries. This pool was managed by a fearsome woman with a long stick. This was beforelifeguard” had become a job, let alone a paid job for teenage swimmers.


Now I swim in the local pool (outdoor, heated), with a lifeguard on duty. It was recently renovated and landscaped with benches and banana lounges – what a gorgeous asset. I go late enough to avoid the early morning gun swimmers, but early enough to be home for breakfast. There are usually only four or five others, so it’s one lane each. One Saturday a fleet of hot-air balloons floated over, as the intermittent whoosh of their flames kept them just above the power lines. Occasionally a couple of seagulls drop in for a sip at the edge. I usually have a chat to the local physio, who is there doing floating exercises under instructions from her physio.


The girl at the desk is rugged up in her early morning parka. “The water’s still steaming,” she says as if that makes it too cold for a swim. These autumn days are cool enough to cause water vapour from the warm pool to condense into steam. It lays low over the water, swirling like a special effect on a stage. I can see the arms of the swimmers lifting and falling through the steam. The sun is still rising, casting the light sideways. A retired gentleman gets out. He towels off and gazes across the pool. “Perfect today,” he says. “Perfect every day,” I say, “and only three dollars thirty.”


There is no murky greenness here, just clear water and the black line along the bottom. I swim up and back, up and back, too slow even for the slow lane. Still, I imagine I achieve a PB, although I have no timing device other than my husband saying, “I’m getting out now.” I can still hear my sister’s voice in my head as I slide though the water: “now kick … now do your arms over … that’s right.”


Rachel Flynn is a Melbourne writer and a very slow swimmer.


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