What a difference (swimming) a mile makes

‘The achievement has changed my life. Seriously. And my children think I am the man from Atlantis’

This time last year I couldn’t swim a stoke. Well that’s not strictly speaking true. I could swim a stroke, in fact I could probably string about 15 or 20 such strokes together, but I swam with the elegance of a baby foal making its way through a sea of trifle. And, in my head at least, I was never more than 20 seconds away from death every time I got into a swimming pool.

It should probably go without saying that worrying about dying all the way through a particular exercise programme is not conducive to amazing results, which is why swimming never really did it for me when it came to getting fit.

I had lessons in the past but my inability to make it from one end of a pool to the other had confounded more than one instructor so I’d knocked it on the head. I figured swimming was for other people.

Unlike many non-swimmers, I didn’t actually have a fear of water, I just had a fear of being out of my depth in water. I could always flap about in the pool with the best of them – and never had a problem fully immersing myself – but once I got out of my depth or once I started to try swim lengths, it was the end for me.


Then, this time last year, something random happened which I will always be grateful for. I got into a lift with a colleague who said: “You’re always signing up for ridiculous things aren’t you?”

Sorry, what? Agreeing to snorkel in a bog in the depths of winter or attempting the Liffey Descent in a Canadian kayak despite never having so much as held a canoe oar – or paddle or whatever they call it – is not ridiculous, is it?

Apparently it is. "You'll sign up for the swimming thing won't you?" this colleague continued. Without giving it so much as five seconds thought, I agreed to take up the Swim For A Mile challenge which is organised by Swim Ireland.

No turning back Truth be told I didn't know I had taken up the challenge at all. I thought I had simply agreed to have a few swimming lessons and figured that it would be a laugh. It was only as the process got underway, that I realised what I had signed up for. And by then it was too late, there was no turning back.

I wished there was then but I’m glad there wasn’t now.

My coach Peter was brilliant. I was a long, long way from brilliant and the early lessons were nightmarish. I couldn’t get my head around the strokes and I couldn’t free up enough headspace to convince myself I wasn’t going to die in the water. It was panic stations all the time.

But Peter was patient and he stuck with me and I stuck with it and eventually after five long months I managed to swim a mile. As I swam the last of the 64 lengths, I could feel myself welling up. For many people swimming a mile is a breeze, for others it is a challenge. For me, it had seemed an impossible dream, an unreachable star. Luckily the pool water streaming down my face spared my blushes at the end.

The achievement has changed my life.

Weeks after the challenge had been completed I went on my summer holidays with my two little girls. Unlike me they have been having swimming lessons since almost before they could walk and they love the water. They have absolutely no fear of it. This fearlessness can be something of a double-edged sword, never more so then when they’re throwing themselves into the deep end.

In the past, I had to forbid such behaviour because I feared that if they got into difficulty in the deep end I would struggle to get to them.

Man from Atlantis Last summer was the first time I spent time with them in a pool as a relatively accomplished swimmer. It was brilliant. I could bring them into the deep(ish) end knowing that no matter what happened I would be able to bring them to safety. I was even able to teach them a few things about swimming technique that I had just learned. I could almost see them looking at me thinking, "Who is this man who looks exactly like our dad but can suddenly swim exactly like the Man from Atlantis".

Okay they weren’t thinking that. They have no idea who the man from Atlantis is. Not many people do any more.

Being able to swim properly has also allowed me to completely mix up my exercise routines. Up until this time last year swimming was no exercise for me, swimming was just an exercise in getting cold and wet.

Today I can actually go to a gym and swim 25 lengths and feel like I’ve had a proper workout – a workout without all the muscle strains and the pain that is associated with other more physically stressful exercises.

And being able to swim has opened up a world of water-based sports. Since I’ve learned to swim I’ve tried surfing - badly - and Stand-Up Paddleboarding - almost as badly. I have even considered buying a wet suit.


But learning to swim has not just had an impact on my exercise regime, my family holidays and my ridiculous pursuit options. It has taught me that goals which I had long assumed were beyond me are achievable.

And as life lessons go, that’s not bad at all.