I had swimming lessons when I was at school. Well, I say “lessons”. What actually happened was I stood with five other kids in the shallow end and we messed about with battered polystyrene floats. Meanwhile, the rest of the class swam confidently up and down, smiling and having fun.
Sometimes they’d be awarded various coloured stripes which their mums stitched to their trunks. They’d get a white one for swimming a length or a red for picking up a rubber brick from the bottom of the pool whilst wearing pyjamas.
My trunks remained unadorned. We non-swimmers were left alone as long as we agreed to not shout or drown. Even my shallow-end dabblings frightened me.
Note from mum
When I walked through the main doors at Langley Baths, the smell of chlorine and that echoey sound in the distance made my heart pound. How did the other kids do it? Why wasn’t the floor of the pool littered with their waterlogged corpses?
I brought a note from my mum whenever possible, saying I had a cold or earache. Then I’d just sit on the poolside wooden benches and marvel at the swimmers’ courage and expertise.
After I left school, I would still shudder whenever I passed Langley Baths. It was a monument to my inadequacy and cowardice. However, I discovered, to my relief, that it’s much easier to avoid swimming as an adult. I didn’t even need a note from my mum.
On holidays I’d stay on the beach, watching my friends’ belongings, while they rode the waves. I’d given up on the idea of ever swimming but it remained my great taboo, the fear I’d never had the courage to face.
Facing my fear
Then, as I reached my 40s, I decided to have another go. By this time, I was doing pretty well as a comedian so I could afford one-to-one sessions. I thought that amount of personal attention might just get me through my barriers.
I found a really good teacher and began to make some progress. I was floating and kicking and almost having fun. But, every now and then, I’d take in a bit of water and panic and the memory of it would keep me awake at night.
I started cancelling lessons, having breaks and eventually I took the coward’s way out again.
Towards the end of last year, I was speaking to a friend who works for Sport Relief about their celebrity challenges, like Eddie Izzard’s endless round of marathons and David Walliams’s epic swims.
“They’re truly amazing,” I said, “but no one’s likely to emulate them. You should get someone to take on their own personal little mountain, the sort of mountain lots of people might climb if they could be inspired to do so.”
As soon as I said it, my own personal mountain loomed into view. I knew what I’d let myself in for. I’d have to have one last crack at my greatest fear.
I had my first lesson on 1 February 2012. By Sport Relief Day, 23 March, I have to be able to swim a length. In that first lesson, with my teacher, David, and my mentor, former British superstar swimmer, Karen Pickering, I was splashing around on three floats in a pool that was 1.2 metres deep all over.
As I’ve slowly progressed we’ve moved to a pool that is one metre deep at one end and a harrowing three metres at the other. I haven’t visited the scary end yet. I’ll have to face a deep end on 23 March but I’m trying not to think about it.
At this stage, it’s all about baby steps, little victories and little defeats. I rarely use the floats now but the panic attacks still come upon me, often when I least expect it. I’ve only really thought about quitting once. Well, maybe twice.
I swim from 10.00 till 11.30 every weekday morning. I have a lane reserved for my lesson and swimmers go by in the adjoining lanes. Sometimes I’ll stop and watch them. Swimmers still seem heroic figures to me.
Since news of my challenge got out, lots of people have stopped me in the street, grabbed my arm and whispered things like “I understand. I’m frightened of water too. Good luck.” Then they hurry off.
There is a whole secret society of non-swimmers out there. As many as one in five British adults can’t swim. They tend not to talk about it. They’ve given up just like I did.
As I write, being able to swim a length still seems a very long way away but that’s my challenge. And I’ll be facing that challenge at the now rather swish Langley Swimming Centre – formerly Langley Baths! If I do manage it, they’d better give me that white stripe!
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 13 March 2012.
See Frank Skinner’s challenge on Sport Relief, tonight from 7pm on BBC1/BBC1 HD