Depth charge

9th August 1996 at 01:00
Deidre Macdonald takes her feet off the pool floor and tries life in the deep end.

My mother, with maternal candour, told me I looked like a fish on a plate. I'd tentatively launched myself across one width of a swimming pool with my chin above the water and my mouth wide open, gasping for air. It was a skill I'd honed over many long years and she'd seen the traversings on many teenage holidays abroad - without spotting that one foot was always firmly on the bottom.

Over the decades many people have tried to teach me to swim - to instil in me that confidence in water that seems to come so naturally to small children whose swimming lessons seem to start before they are out of nappies.

Even my own son has patiently spent hours in pools, ready to reach out for me as I faltered and sank. But never, ever, would I go out of my own depth. No way.

Crieff Hydro is a huge Victorian palace high in the Perthshire hills above the town of Crieff. It claims to have the highest occupancy rate of any hotel in Europe - and it is easy to see why. It extends genuinely warm welcomes to everyone from toddlers to 90-year-olds and cossets all-comers in its luxurious facilities. Which include two swimming pools.

Private swimming lessons are available to guests in "the old pool" for Pounds 6 for half-an-hour. And the old pool is where the formidable Kerry Sweeney reigns supreme.

Twenty-one-year-old Kerry is a member of the Institute of Swimming Teachers and Coaches and a qualified Amateur Swimming Association teacher for adults, parents and babies. She is also a qualified lifeguard teacher.

We have the old pool to ourselves and so have the privilege of complete privacy. "I'll start as though you were a complete beginner," she says tactfully.

"Just hold on to the bar" (as if I wouldn't). "Lower your chin into the water and just blow bubbles". After a few moments of this innocuous activity, she says more ominously, "I just want you to get used to getting your face wet. Water will get in your eyes but you just have to think of your eyelids as windscreen wipers: blink and you'll get the water out."

I tell her she seems determined that I am going to go under.

"Of course," she replies, with her big, friendly smile. That smile - full of encouragement - is to persuade me to do many a thing in the water that I've previously always ruled out.

But I had reckoned without one thing. It had never occurred to me to get in the pool - or any other place on Earth - without make-up. Never having put my head under water before, mascara had not been a problem. After a couple of dunkings, it is. I look like a panda.

"Take a deep breath in and then blow out as you go through the water. Lower and lower, until you get your head completely wet". Running mascara notwithstanding, she soon has me sitting under water for nano-seconds at a time.

Then comes the party trick. "Sitting under the water, pull your knees and your feet up towards your head." This is not easy.

But my reward for effort is to be allowed to demonstrate my prowess at swimming half way across the pool (in my own depth) towards Kerry, then further and further, until I am swimming full widths with a modicum of confidence. Here and there, she gently modifies my movements.

For this huge achievement, I am allowed to use two polystyrene floats - one under each arm - to give me the feeling of floating. I love them. Kerry has a hard time getting them back.

Finally she persuades me to lower the back of my head against her hand - and to float.

Well, nearly. Foot by foot, with me hanging on to the railing, she coaxes me deeper into the pool. All the way to the deep end.

"Look," she says. "If you stand on the bottom step, you're not really out of your depth at all. Use that as a start for your first width in the deep end."

She swims to the half-way mark. "Come on," she says. "Have faith in me. " She uses that encouraging smile.

I tell her I do have faith in her; it's with myself that I have the problem.

After a few false starts, and the realisation that Kerry is not going to let me out of the pool until I have done a couple of deep-end widths, I do it. To my own amazement and delight.

This all takes place in about an hour-and-a-half.

Two days later with a total of about seven hours in the pool with Kerry, my confidence is transformed. I can swim.

Accommodation at the Crieff Hydro, which includes access to the two pools, begins at Pounds 47.50 low season to Pounds 58 high season, per person, for dinner, bed and breakfast. Crieff Hydro Hotel, Crieff, Perthshire PH7 3LQ. Tel: 01764 655555

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