Learning to swim in your fifties

In spite of being a former personal trainer and now a Women’s Health Coach, Thelma Mensah had never been able to swim. A conversation with Noon founder, Eleanor Mills, and the chance to take part in one of the Noon retreats proved to be the incentive she needed to finally take the plunge and learn. 

I have always wanted to not just learn to swim, but to be good at it too. I longed to be one of those people who glides through the water effortlessly doing lengths and tumble turns. I know, too, that being able to swim is an essential life skill and that the health benefits, particularly in your Queenager years, are extensive.

My learning-to-swim journey started as a result of a conversation with Noon founder, Eleanor, during which she invited me to come to one of their amazing day retreats.  I said I’d love to, but wouldn’t be able to take part in the wild lake swimming as I couldn’t swim. Galvanised by her encouragement and always up for a challenge, I decided to learn how to swim in the three months between then and the retreat.

I’m sure most of you reading this will wonder how it is that I have reached the age I am (51) and not know how to swim? For many black women and people of colour, not being able to swim is way more common than you think. According to the Black Swimming Association (BSA), 95% of black adults can’t swim. And Sport England stats reveal that 80% of black children in England do not swim. 93% of Asian adults and 78% of Asian children follow the same pattern. That sounds crazy, I know, but to be completely honest, I am not that surprised.

When I was growing up we had minimal swimming lessons in school, where the threshold for being considered competent was being able to swim ten yards, which you got a certificate for. You were considered truly badass if you could swim to the bottom of the pool in your pyjamas and retrieve a brick. I was in awe of those kids.

Misinformation and false tropes

At that time there was, and sadly is still, a lot of incorrect information circling around reasons why black people did and do not swim. I remember hearing one about our bones being too big!  All false tropes steeped in racism.

One of the main reasons for my own lack of swimming ability was that my parents, like many immigrates in the 70’s and 80’s, worked three jobs to put food on the table for their family. They simply did not have any extra time to be taking me down to Hackney Baths for swimming of a weekend.

Then there was my hair. Unlike my white friends who could just jump in the pool, get out, wash, and go home, it was a little more complicated for me and my big 4c textured hair. There was a whole, time-consuming regime that had I had to endure any time my hair got wet. And swimming caps back in the day were not designed to protect my afro hair.

Past and present

Back to my three-month swimming challenge. I’d had group swim sessions in the past, but they were useless. The instructor stood on the side, barked instructions, and just let us a splash around whilst ensuring we didn’t drown. This time I knew that to be successful at this swimming lark I was going to need one-to-one coaching from someone who really knew what they were doing. Fortunately David Lloyd Leisure, came to my rescue and offered to find me an instructor. They assured me that Lucy could help me achieve my goals.

Before I could start, I had to sort out some other issues that had prevented me embarking on swimming lessons. This first one being my chronic short sightedness. In the past I had whacked in my contact lenses, used bog-standard swimming goggles and hoped for the best.  I subsequently found out from my optician that I could have put my vision at serious risk of infection and was firmly told never to do that again but rather to invest in some prescription swimming goggles. Who knew there was such a thing.  Before I know it, I’m heading to Vision Express to be fitted with my goggles.

Thelma in Vision Express trying on her prescription goggles

Second thing to sort is a decent swimming cap. I have an exceptionally big head and big hair to boot which used to make it nigh on impossible to find a cap that could fit my head whilst keeping my hair dry. Luckily times have changed and a few companies have sought to address this cultural imbalance by creating inclusive swim caps for people with ample hair.  I opt for a swim cap from Soul Cap whose mission is to make ‘swimming for all by bringing inclusivity and accessibility to the sport’. A message that I am completely onboard with.

On the day of my first lesson, I arrive with my full Black Girl Swim Kit: Speedo cossie (the anti-chlorine one because I mean business), the cap that fits like a glove on my head, my prescription goggles, which are a friggin’ game changer, and obvs my body cream and scrub – chlorine smell be gone. All the gear and no idea springs to mind, but I am ready.

The kit is ready, now time to try the swimming

I’d had a brief Zoom conversation with Lucy ahead of the session where she asked me various questions about my swimming ability and water confidence. I’m glad to discover when I meet her in person that she’s even more personable and patient than when we spoke online.

Lucy comes into the pool with me as I start off by learning to put my face in the water and blow bubbles through my nose and mouth, something I master quite quickly. We then progress to using a float and getting the hang of kicking with it.

Over the following weeks I practice my blowing bubbles swimming with the float and using my arms, one at a time whilst holding the float. I’m making fast progress and I can tell that Lucy is pleased.

My first unaided swim

Four weeks in, and it’s time to put my big girl (swim) pants on and try to swim unaided. Yikes. I can’t quite get to grips with the side breathing, kicking, using my arms, and moving all at the same time. Panic keeps setting in and I have to keep stopping. Lucy reassures me I’m doing well and tells me not to be so hard on myself and to ‘trust the water’. At the end of the lesson Lucy tells me to start practising on my own, which I take to mean she is confident that I won’t drown without her alongside me.

Week nine I attempt backstroke with a float and manage to do a whole length. Woohoo. I am shattered – swimming is tough. I also practice retrieving a sinker from the bottom of the pool and learn some water safety skills such as how to do a star fish and mushroom float.

Three months passes quickly and it’s time for me to go to the retreat. I still can’t swim but I can confidently float. The lake is beautiful, murky, and intimidating. I ask if it’s shallow enough for my feet to touch the bottom, and am reassured that it is. I muster up the courage and gingerly get in the water aided by a rubber ring. I feel great in the water and really enjoy my time in the lake. This is major and something I would never have considered doing three months ago.

Thelma achieves her goal of swimming at the Wasing retreat

All the lovely ladies at the retreat are congratulating me for getting in the water and I know I should be proud but it’s not enough. My daughter can swim, and I want to be able to go to water parks with her, lounge around on a lilo on holiday rather than having conversations with from the pool side. More than that, I want to be able to swim a whole length and my inner child wants and needs that 10-yards certificate that I didn’t get in Primary school. More lessons me thinks.

So, back to my lessons with Lucy, even more dogged determined to swim that length. If only I could master my breathing, which I am finding so tough. It’s like I have hit a wall. Luckily Lucy has something up here sleeve that she believes will help me get over the pesky breathing issue and restore my confidence – flippers. I put those bad boys on am I am breezing across the water and managing to breath well. They are game changers and I effortlessly swim 15 metres unaided. I am back in the game.

I am continuing my practise sessions on my own and can see how much they help when I go to have my lessons. I am also becoming somewhat of a celebrity in the changing rooms. Random people have started coming up to me to congratulate me, saying they have been watching my progress from my day one.

Six months in and the next challenge

I have had nearly six months of lessons and can confidently do a length of backstroke and around half a length of front crawl. Lucy tells me that it is now just a case of me believing that I can swim the whole way. She has faith that I am at a stage where I am ready. Practice and belief are a must now.

The weather is getting colder, and I catch a bug which means I can’t do any swimming. Once I’m fully recuperated I turn up for my lesson and Lucy says it’s time to rip the band aid off and just try and smash out that length. Plus, she promises to give me a certificate if I do it today. That’s all the motivation I need. We start with a leg warm up with the float then I do a whole length with the flippers which I have done many times but today I feel surprisingly relaxed. Even Lucy notices and tells me that is the best she has ever seen my swim. So now to do it without the flippers.

I push off from the wall and start swimming. I feel all the lessons and practice come together and I can hear Lucy shouting at me, encouraging me to keep going. I get to 15 metres and am getting tired but I’m determined. 20 metres out I am damn near dying, but I can see that finish, so I keep kicking like a mad woman (Lucy’s favourite phrase) and touch the end of the pool. I’ve done it! Mission accomplished!  Lucy is calling out well done and through my exhaustion I can hear other people in the pool congratulating me. What a feeling!  Just when I think I am done Lucy tells me to start doing another length of backstroke so I can qualify for my 50 metres certificate. After the front crawl, back stroke is practically a walk in the park. I am tired but I complete it and have earned my certificate.

Thelma completes her first 50 metre solo swim…

I am super proud of myself, that at the age of 51 I have learnt to swim. I have loved it, made new friends, lost weight, improved my mental health, learned a valuable life skill and proved that black people really can learn to swim.  Lucy has told me that I must keep practising and improving in the water, so I don’t lose all that we have learned together. Trust this is one skill and hobby that I am not letting go of anytime soon. Next stop – revisiting that wild lake in Wasing to do some open swimming. I can’t wait.

…and earns a certificate for her efforts

I’ve learned so many life lessons from this experience, the main one being that nothing should stop you achieving what you want, whatever age you are.  I have never felt more confident, determined, and energised from learning to swim in my fifties.  To anyone else thinking of starting a new hobby, or ticking something off your bucket list that been there for ages, I say now, do it now! Your well-being will thank you for it.

By Thelma Mensah

Read more about Thelma and her passion for championing and celebrating women over 40 on Substack

With many thanks to Lucy Pinder, Swim Supervisor, David Lloyd Dartford 

And Vision Express for the prescription goggles

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