As a kid of the 80s and 90s, I have a pretty broad spectrum of British sporting heroes. From Daley Thompson (the number of joysticks I broke while trying to beat my brother at his Decathlon computer on the Amstrad) to Sally Gunnell, these sporting stars motivated me to keep moving. I’ll never forget waiting outside my Nan’s house in the car with my big brother and dad, so we could listen on the radio (old school) to Linford Christie win gold at the Barcelona Olympic Gold.
My memories of swimming stars was dominated by one man: Duncan Goodhew. Imagine my sheer delight, when 20 years later I was offered the chance to not only meet the President of Swimathon 2014 but have my own 1-2-1 session with him in the pool as part of my training for the #Swimathon 2014. Excited? Not half.
The man who I’d seen on countless children’s TV programmes (Blue Peter, CBBC, Going Live, you name it) was going to spend time with ME and help ME improve the sorry state that is my swimming technique. He was just as I imagined; kind, patient and encouraging. And I got to hold his gold medal from the 1980 Moscow Olympics. I came out of the session on a swimming high but also more focused about how to make the most of this #Swimathon opportunity.
Here’s how Duncan Goodhew and the #Swimathon made this all possible.
1. The water is an oasis of calm
I’m pretty confident in the water and have been for some years now but before I even jumped in, Duncan helped me to see the crystal-clear water of Ironmonger’s Row Baths, Islington, as a calm environment. By tapping into the times that I have spent in the water and enjoyed it – on holiday in some far-flung location away from rainy London, he instantly made me feel comfortable and relaxed about training. The pre-drill prep talk certainly changed my mindset so I could focus on how fun being in the water is.
2. Go back to the beginning
Like most people, my relationship with swimming harps back to my schooldays and material award badges. I never learnt how to dive, my freestyle (front crawl) is basic (to say the least) and breast stroke is passable. Duncan asked what the goal of the session was. My first thought was, well where do I start? Perhaps a good place would be to work on my breast stroke and make myself more efficient in the water. I am, after all, going to have to swim 100 lengths on 22 March 2014 (the equivalent of 2.5k) as part of my Swimathon challenge. He asked me to swim breast stroke for a length and then freestyle for half a length (which I just about managed). The good news was my technique for breast stroke wasn’t bad, in fact, my pull – that’s the arms – was quite good (you have no idea how great that made me feel to hear this from an Olympic champion), it was my timing which was slightly off. He also told me kindly (and not using these words) that my freestyle was salvageable. So after all my concerns, there was a way forward. It would just mean going back to the start.
3. Use a float
As Duncan explained, water is amazing in that it supports your body. Astronauts train in water because the buoyancy created allows them to experience the weightlessness of zero gravity in space. The key to swimming well is to try and make your body as aerodynamic as possible. This is where the float comes in. Yes, you know what I’m talking about – the polystyrene objects, usually found at the side of pools up and down the country. Everyone learns better by taking things one step at a time and to nail my swimming technique, it would be a case of breaking down the stroke into pull (arms) and legs. And, of course, a float is a super-useful in this process. Not only does it keep your body horizontal by supporting your weight, floats can also stabilize your body, ensuring it’s in the right position as you glide through the water. It’s also a good way of isolating one part of your body and giving the rest a bloody good workout.
4. Perfecting my breast stroke
Ha, as if! No matter how hard Duncan tried, it was going to take more than an hour to perfect my stroke. He did, however, give me two drills to take away and practice in my own time:
The first – I like to call puff. Essentially, it focuses on my kick during breast stroke. You hold a float out in front of you and every time you kick with your legs you breathe out quickly. This action of puffing out helps you snaps your legs out behind hard and fast to make you as aerodynamic in the water as possible. Or that’s the theory anyway. I have to say it’s a lot harder than it sounds but I have been working on snapping my legs together in the water.
The second exercise focuses on the timing of my stroke. As I said before, my pull is pretty good. My timing has a lot to be desired so Duncan taught me a drill of one small quick pull followed by two very quick leg snaps. Again, it’s tough but certainly something for me to take away.
5. And finally, getting onto that freestyle
I’ve always shied away from freestyle as the breathing just seems like a minefield. While I’ve kind of mastered my breath while running, moving in the water is a whole different matter. Once again, Duncan took me back to basics. Old habits do die hard but with a little bit of determination and Duncan’s drills, I’m determined to be able to swim freestyle confidently in a few months time. Once again, the float came in handy with this drill.
By holding the float with both arms straight out in front of me in the pool (making an arrow shape in the water), I could really focus on the stroke: as in arm movement, head turn and breathe. It was a struggled but after a few half lengths, my body started to become attuned to the action of moving my arms one at a time through the water and turning my head after two strokes to breathe. That said, I knew this was only the beginning. Duncan did say that I’ve grasped the idea (thank God), but as with everything practice takes perfect. And that is exactly what I will do.
Not only has being a part of the #Swimathon 2014 encouraged me to swim more, it’s also pushing me to try harder and learn different strokes, so that I can enjoy making the most of being in the water.