Adult swimming lessons might safe your life – but they can also be fun and fulfilling, for both novice and experienced paddler

By Caroline Davidson and Alex Wade: Sunday Telegraph 08 Nov 2014. Photo: Jeff Gilbert.

Caroline – novice swimmer

It’s a Sunday night and I have trekked from north London to Hampton Pool in Middlesex to have a swimming lesson with Salim Ahmed. I’m nervous. I’m not a confident swimmer, and all around me are seasoned regulars with those triangular bodies. Salim reassures me: “There’s everyone here from beginners to triathletes. It’s about having fun and discovering sheer pleasure.”

I’ve signed up for a lesson with Salim because, aged 36, there’s no time like the present. And after a year working in London I’m returning to my home in Cornwall. A county fuelled by the sea, Cornwall is a place where not to swim is not to thrive. My partner, Alex, swims regularly in the sea there and I’d like to join him. Moreover, I am convinced that swimming is going to make me tougher – that battling waves will assist me in life.

“There’s a lot about life that you can learn from swimming,” says Salim. “It reminds you that you’re not important in the scheme of things. It keeps you sane.”

I first heard about Salim at Watergate Bay Hotel in Cornwall, where the 51-year-old runs Swim Clinic, a two-day break with a focus on food and front crawl. Practising what he calls alternative swim coaching, Salim does not follow a formal teaching programme. Rather, he says, his starting point with any pupil is “to teach them to swim beautifully”. After that, it’s down to a pupil’s age, motivation, experience and body type.

“I have a body that sinks,” he says. “Thanks to their body shape and composition, women are naturally more buoyant.”

Last year the actress Sabrina Bartlett benefited from Salim’s approach. She stars in The Crossing, a short film about an Italian girl who attempts, in 1961, to be the youngest person to swim the English Channel. Salim was tasked with turning her into a credible Channel swimmer. Twice a week he teaches children as part of Becky Adlington’s Swim Stars programme and last month former Team GB swimmer Liz Pinches became an ambassador for Salim’s swimming school, Swim Lab. He sounds ideal. But why, before I tiptoe into the pool, does Salim tell me his swimming hero, of all people, is Jamie Oliver?

“Because he does things his way, using his influence to make a difference.”

Salim has a knack for remarks like this. A man who evidently likes to swim against the tide, I discover there is more to Salim’s alternative approach than departing from conventional coaching. Growing up in Wimbledon during the Seventies Salim had first-hand experience of prejudice – in life and in sport. He captained his school and university teams at a time when black and Asian people were unfairly stereotyped as poor swimmers. It’s an experience that has informed an egalitarian, anti-competitive attitude to swimming. His mission is to make people fall in love with the water.

In the heated, floodlit, 36m pool on the edge of Bushy Park I can just feel the chill of late-coming autumn. Salim hands me some flippers and assesses my technique. My horizontal position is good. Quickly, Salim gets to work. Using a float, I swim two lengths with minimal effort. My toes are pointed. My legs are straight but there’s an amphibious flexibility in my joints. On to my arms: first right, then left, then both alternately I slice them through the water with an attempt at graceful economy. In my mind’s eye, the image of my father, a beautiful swimmer. In every stroke, not a battle with the water but a collaboration. By the end, I am tired but triumphant. I have all the strength I need. “You have to continue,” says Salim. “This is your sport.” Next week I shall learn how to breathe.

Alex – experienced swimmer

Caroline, my partner, is adamant. “You’ll get a lot out of a lesson with Salim,” she tells me. “He teaches everyone from beginners to competitive swimmers. And you more than anyone would benefit from his approach.”

At first, I demur. I was brought up with the sea a stone’s throw away. I swam for my school team and as an adult I have completed a number of open water sea swims. I can count a triathlon event in large, pounding surf as one of them and a series of mile-plus sea swims off the Cornish coast. The longer and harder, the better. Why do I need a swimming lesson?

“Not competing, whether against yourself or others, will do you good,” says Caroline. “Besides, what about all your injuries? Maybe Salim could improve your technique, so that swimming doesn’t aggravate them.”

The mention of injuries convinces me. The past summer of swimming three times a week has seen two injuries flare up. My neck, which has a titanium cage at the C4 vertebrae (boxing can be bad for your health), has been starting to hurt from front crawl, so too my right shoulder, which has very little cartilage left in it (the legacy of many dislocations from skateboarding and windsurfing). I decide to give Salim a go.

Slim and fit-looking – as debonair as a track-suited swimming coach can be – Salim is sure he can help. “I’ve taught everyone from old ladies in their 90s to professional swimmers,” he tells me, as I arrive at Watergate Bay Hotel on the north Cornish coast. “People with injuries, too. Jump in the pool and let me see how you swim.”

I enter the infinity pool at Watergate’s Swim Club. It’s a beautifully designed 25m pool with large windows looking out to sea. I make a comment about the surf being on the small side; it turns out that Salim, like me, is a surfer.

It also transpires that surfing informs my swimming style. I have surfed for 30 years. The result, says Salim after he’s seen me swim a couple of lengths of front crawl, is a tendency to sweep forward with my arms in a wide arc – “just like a surfer. Let’s work on that. I’ll have you swimming more elegantly and faster in no time.”

Really? “Yes, really,” says Salim. “You’re a good swimmer but there’s definitely room for improvement.”

To bring about this improvement Salim has me holding onto a float and kicking my way up and down the pool. I have to point my toes, like a ballerina. It’s exhausting, but the point is to focus on making my kick as efficient as possible. The next task is harder still: this time I have to hold the float with one arm, and swim the length of the pool using just the other arm, all the while remembering to drag my arm up as close to my body as possible before reaching out and stroking forward.

Salim has a nice term for the moment your hand enters the water. “That’s it, that’s when the romance of swimming begins.” I alternate swimming one-armed up and down the pool, and then Salim says we’re going to concentrate on my breathing. “I want you to count one-two as you take a breath, to create a slight delay before you take a stroke.” It takes time – there’s a lot to think about, and swimming one-armed is tiring – but eventually I get it. Then Salim tells me to put everything together and swim normally.

The result is astonishing. I feel as if I’m gliding through the water. Because I’m swimming more economically neither neck nor shoulder is hurting. And I’m sure I’m faster, too.

“You are,” says Salim, “but that’s not what’s most important. Swimming doesn’t need to be about competition.”

Salim is right. And so, it proves, was Caroline. Recalibrated, I look forward to swimming as much as ever – with the emphasis on pleasure rather than punishment.