The joy of learning to swim

June 16, 2022

The joy of learning to swim

Those first splashes. The water on your face. The feeling of being weightless, of being free and at one with nature. Swimming brings so many of us joy, and yet almost a third of adults in the UK cannot swim. Just mull that one over – that’s one in three adults in the UK who can’t swim a 25-metre length of a swimming pool.

There are lots of reasons for this – lack of access to pools or lessons, social or cultural attitudes towards swimming, an inherent fear of the water, and appearing in public in swimwear.

It’s never too late

Winnie Poaty is an African-British open water swimmer based in the Lake District. She’s an advocate for mental wellness and diversity in open spaces, and her Insta feed is full of pictures of her beatific smile as she swims. And yet, Winnie only learned to swim as an adult.

“It was only when I moved to The Lake District that I began to try and learn to swim, it wasn’t easy for me and took me several years to feel confident in the water,” she says.

Winnie had grown up in the Congo where swimming was forbidden for fear of drowning. “We lived close to the sea and yet we were not allowed to be near it as we didn’t know how to swim,” she says. “Historically, our community experienced a surplus of deaths through drowning, so swimming or being near the water was forbidden.”

Winnie Poaty African-English outdoor swimmer open water black signature Deakin and Blue swimwear head scarf

A life-saving skill

This idea of staying away from water to prevent drowning seems topsy-turvy, but it’s very common throughout the world. In 2021, evidence from the National Water Safety Forum in the UK showed that 40% of people who had drowning accidents had no intention of entering the water.

It’s a sobering topic, but it’s important to think that swimming is more than a bringer of joy – it has the potential to save lives. And that puts learning to swim right up there with learning to cross the road.

In June every year, the Royal Lifesaving Society (RLSS) runs Drowning Prevention Week to teach people how to enjoy the water safely. With a focus on under-represented communities, its mission is to break down barriers and give people essential water safety skills.

“We want to ensure that everyone can enjoy their summer break and enjoy being in or around water but be safe in the knowledge that they, and their children, have the skills and understanding about water safety, which could potentially save a life,” says Charity Director, Lee Heard.


Breaking down barriers

Another barrier is self-consciousness and lack of confidence. In 2016, a survey of women by Everyone Active showed that 65% of mothers felt judged when wearing a swimsuit or bikini. A further 38% said that they avoided all water-related activities with their children because they involved wearing swimwear, and a similar proportion said that they didn’t feel confident getting into water.

This was exactly how Wendy felt. "The kids would go in the sea with my husband and I would always find an excuse to cover myself up. Every year I would sit on the beach to ‘watch the bags’," she says. "But after joining the Bluetits, I seemed to lose my self-consciousness. When we came back on holiday in 2019 I stripped to my swimsuit and got in without thinking. My husband was gobsmacked and the kids were delighted as I was able to splash around and play with them for the first time!" 

Rabiah also lacked confidence in her body - confidence that she found by learning to swim. "Learning to swim with SwimDem has given me the confidence to do so much more than just swim – it’s also changed how I feel about my body," she says. "I remember in that first session I didn’t feel at all confident in a swimsuit, even a year ago I still struggled with it a little. But now I change into my swimming costumes and feel so much better about myself. It has helped me to become so comfortable with my body and it instilled me with a mindset of ‘if I can do this, I can do anything’ – something I was definitely lacking."

Rabiah body stories Deakin and Blue black plunge swimsuit

For Winnie, it was more that she looked different to other swimmers. “Overcoming my nerves and the feeling of being different was a journey of self-discovery within itself,” she says. “A black girl swimming is something of a novelty it seems – I was often the only person of colour in the lake – certainly the only regular person I saw.”

Swimming is a potential lifesaver for children and adults, but it’s also a joy. On top of that, it has huge benefits for physical and cognitive development in early childhood, and physical and mental health benefits that extend well into old age.

So, it’s important that we continue to find ways of helping people of all ages, from all backgrounds access the water – whether that’s through campaigns like the RLSS’s, supporting organisations like Winnie’s Win Outdoor Foundation or simply making beautiful swimwear that helps women feel more confident.

“There is a fierce yet peaceful and beautiful place to be found in the water and it’s a place that both awakens my spirit and feeds my soul,” says Winnie. “My swimming journey continues to feed and inspire me and others, it has empowered me to try and achieve more.

“My hopes and dreams are to help black, brown and low-income families to swim and also access the goodness of the outdoors. I want to help those struggling with their mental health access the outdoors.”