How I learned to swim, and swim

I learned to swim at primary school. Once a fortnight my primary school class would get on a bus with our bright orange swimming bags and travel six miles to the nearest swimming pool. I felt clumsy and awkward in my swimming costume and hated putting my head underwater. Somehow I managed to learn backstroke and breaststroke. And that’s been good enough for me for years.

The deep end
The deep end


The first time I thought about getting some adult swimming classes was when I was living in Australia. But, in a country where everyone seemed to swim beautifully and effortlessly, I was embarrassed to admit I couldn’t and kept finding excuses not to do anything about my lack of swimming skills.

The second time I thought about adult swimming classes I booked myself a course of lessons and was halfway through the course when I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Some people are able to exercise during treatment but that wasn’t an option for me.

The third time I thought about swimming lessons was when I realised how much swimming would be involved in Freyathlon – front crawl and butterfly, the individual and team events, the 10k marathon swim, and the triathlon.

Pull buoys and kick boards
Pull buoys and kick boards


Two local leisure centres really helped me out: Downham Health & Leisure Centre gave me free access to the pool and arranged for me to join a weekly swimming class with instructor Sally, then Fusion Lifestyle picked up the baton and arranged for me to have lessons with instructor Michael at Lewisham’s Glass Mill Leisure Centre.

Sally told me to forget about trying to do bilateral breathing (where you breath on alternate sides) and to focus on getting from one end of the pool to the other. Michael watched me thrashing around in the pool and suggested I slow down my pace so I could breathe more easily and gave me plenty of drills to increase my stamina and improve my technique.

In January I couldn’t swim a stroke of front crawl, in February I swam a frantic and gasping 25m, in March I managed to swim three painful 25m laps, in April I decided to take it outside and I joined Charlton Lido and Lifestyle Centre to get used to outdoor swimming.

Flags at Charlton Lido
Flags at Charlton Lido


I quickly became a regular visitor at the lido, hitting the pool about three or four times a week but still struggling to crack more than 100m front crawl. I decided to take a break from the front crawl practice and focus on building up my stamina to find out what it might feel like to swim 750m – what I’d need to swim for the sprint distance in the London Triathlon. Swimming a mix of breaststroke and front crawl I managed to swim 800m, and completing the triathlon started to feel a possibility.

Once I’d done 800m a few times I realised this could be the key to completing the marathon swim and decided to swim 1000m a day for 10 days. I started on 1 June and swam two breaststroke laps to every one front crawl. Over the 10 days I kept changing the number of laps I swam in each until, on day 10, I swam more front crawl than breaststroke. It was a huge day.

10k done!
10k done!

A week later I was at the pool with the aim of completing all the individual freestyle distances. I had no idea how it would go and gave myself permission to take a rest if it all became too much. I managed 50m and 100m OK and started on the 200m. I slowed my pace and realised I’d relaxed into a rhythm: over, forward, reach, pull, turn, breathe. I started to watch the other swimmers underwater, noticing their style and trying to improve my technique.

I finished the 200m, took a rest and began swimming 400m. I settled into a rhythm again and suddenly realised I’d swum 500m. I decided to crack on and do 800m then finish in style with a cheeky 400m.

It wasn’t fast and my technique wasn’t great. But I’d done it.

Team relays

For the relays I needed team mates (Hello Clare, George, Trace!). Two of us were experienced swimmers, two of us weren’t. Lido manager Steven suggested we hold the relays on a Friday evening and kindly offered to give us a lane – possibly to reduce the chance of us disturbing everyone else.

Team mates: Freya, Clare, George, Trace
Team mates: Freya, Clare, George, Trace

There were only four or five other swimmers in the pool when we arrived and we started warming up, ploughing up and down the pool. I’d completed the freestyle distances the day before and my arms and shoulders were feeling heavy and slow.

We agreed the order of swimmers (George, Freya, Trace, Clare) and that we could each swim whatever stroke we wanted in the freestyle relays. Trace timed each of our relay legs for analysis in the pub. While we waited for each other to finish a relay leg, I demonstrated what I’d learned about water polo, we talked about open water swimming and swimwear, and Clare lobbied for a trip to Dover.

Clare reminded us to touch the wall correctly at the end of each leg so our team didn’t run the risk of disqualification. Of what, none of us knew. But we dutifully touched the wall and called for the next swimmer to start.

Teamies: Freya and George
Teamies: Freya and George

We finished the 200m and started the 400m. Some of us kept warm by swimming up and down while waiting for our turn. I didn’t because there wasn’t much time for me to wait between my legs of the relay.

The final relay was the medley. Clare and Trace confirmed the order of the strokes (back, breast, fly, freestyle) and we discussed who’d swim which: George led off with backstroke, I followed with breaststroke, Clare and Trace each swam one leg of butterfly and one of freestyle.

Apres-swim: Trace, George, Clare, Freya
Apres-swim: Trace, George, Clare, Freya

In the pub, we pored over the times. Some of us were happy to have swum the distances, some of us thought about our times in previous decades.

Medleys and fly

A few days later I was back at the pool to tackle the two fly distances and the individual medleys.

Butterfly is a tricky stroke and not one I’d spent much time practicing. I’d been shown two ways to swim it and decided to give them both a go. One involved using my arms to propel myself through the water and letting my legs glide – a risky strategy for a swimmer with a tendency to drop her legs. The other involved stretching my arms in front to glide and keeping my legs together to make a dolphin-style kick.

I tried both and the dolphin-style kick was marginally more successful.

I managed 50m and knew if I tried to swim any further distance I’d be exhausted and unlikely to finish the two individual medleys. I decided to substitute freestyle for the fly leg in the two individual medleys.


The stroke order for the individual medley is different from the relay medley: you start with fly, then backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle. I liked the symmetry of starting and finishing with freestyle.

Everything was going OK until I started on the backstroke. I was in a lane by myself and, without the lines on the ceiling to follow, thought I’d be able to use the ropes as a guide. This didn’t happen. I slalomed my way up and down the pool, crashing into the ropes on either side. Every so often I raised my head to see the patterns and ripples I was creating – I hope the lifeguards enjoyed the entertainment

Eventually it was over and I pressed on with the breaststroke and freestyle. Then did it all again for the 400m medley. There was more slalom.

When I finished I had no one to celebrate with. It might have taken six months, but I’d learned how to swim front crawl then managed to complete (almost) every Olympic swimming event.


At the edge of the pool I stopped to take a selfie. A woman walked past and asked if I was trying to get a signal. I laughed and said: ‘No. I’ve just finished something and I want to record it.’

And I can’t help thinking I may have more swimming events to record.

Backstroke: 100m (3.45mins), 200m (8.20mins). 12 November 2015

Breaststroke: 100m (4.30mins), 200m (10.35mins). 19 November 2015

Butterfly: 100m, 200m

Freestyle: 50m (2.14mins), 100m (4.11mins), 200m (7.01mins), 400m (13.04mins), 800m (30.07mins). 16 June 2016

Individual medley: 200m (19.40mins), 400m (39.01mins). 23 June 2016

Freestyle relay: 4 x 100m (12.14mins), 4 x 200m (22.30mins).. 17 June 2016

Medley relay: 4 x 100m (14.34mins). 17 June 2016


Downham Health & Leisure Centre

Glass Mill Leisure Centre

Charlton Lido and Lifestyle Centre

TeamFreya: Clare, George, Trace

Cost: check with each venue