At 36, I decided to learn how to swim – and it turns out I'm not alone

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 Photo: Getty Images

"Do you teach … um … adult swimming lessons?"

I practically whispered the words over the phone, so embarrassed was I at not being able to swim well. It seemed so apparent to me that every other adult can swim, that the swim centre staff member might just laugh at me and hang up.

But the response was exactly what I didn't expect. "We do, but all the sessions are booked out," they said in an apologetic tone.

This boosted my confidence in ringing some other swim centres, receiving the same response from almost all – so when I found one with a vacancy, I enrolled in something I'd been putting off my whole adult life.

I'm now in a swimming class with people of all different ages and skills; some can't swim at all, while others are keen to perfect their strokes. But we all have one thing in common: we've swallowed our pride and admitted we want to learn.

And that's pretty powerful.

Not just for kids: why adults are signing up for swimming lessons

There are lots of reasons that adults take up swimming lessons. For me, swimming in my school years – and especially being in the change rooms with all the other kids – was something to dread, so most of my energy was spent plotting new ways to get out of it.

For others, the opportunity simply wasn't there.

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Barbara Brangan grew up in Ireland and jokes, "I learnt to swim like an Irish person, not an Aussie". Now that she's raising her two children in Australia, Brangan has noticed the gap between her skills and that of her kids.

"I did my lessons at the same time as my kids were in their swimming lessons," she says. "The kids [aged five and seven] love it, they keep waving to me. We also have races and compare what we've learnt, and I can help them more now too."

For Lindsey McLachlan, a personal trainer and mum to three boys, a series of anxieties kept her out of the water. And, like many, she was able to avoid confronting this fear for years – until she became a parent.

"The 'trigger' was last summer, when I realised my older two could now probably out-swim me," she says. "We spend a lot of time at the pool and the lake during summer, and it worried me that I wouldn't be able to help them if they got into trouble."

Facing the fear is good for us – and our kids

Perhaps we're all still outgrowing a childhood perception that adults know everything. When we grow up and find out this isn't true, we give ourselves a hard time.

And so many of us feel shame in admitting we don't have the water skills we feel we should.

"I've always lived in Australia and I've always spent summers at the beach, particularly along Port Phillip Bay," says mum of two Helen King. "We're meant to love the water and take to swimming like a duck to water. I was always fearful … and then, as an adult, I felt that the opportunity had passed. It was too late to address it, let alone own up to the fact that I was afraid."

As well as doing this for herself, King has found it's been a good role modelling exercise for her children. "I think it's good for them to see me learning as it demonstrates that we continue to learn, even when we're adults. They realise it's never too late," she says. "They like the fact that I can now swim alongside them ... they're less excited about the fact that I can now beat them!"

Although a series of swimming lessons doesn't turn us into Olympians, simply having gotten a bit better is confidence boosting. "I am improving, and I am capable of improving, and I think that's the main thing," King says.

I've learnt a lot about myself in the pool – after all, there's a lot of time to think when you're distracting yourself from feeling anxious during laps. Perhaps the best lesson of all is the reminder that whatever you're feeling, and however much you think you're the only one, there are always others going through similar things.

Opening up to our perceived failures removes the power they hold over us.

"I have talked openly about the fact I did lessons," says McLachlan. "Some people are shocked, and some even laugh at me. But I've also had a lot of people open up and quietly tell me they can't swim either, and that they wish they had the courage to take lessons too."