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Natalie Karneef Headshot

Learning to Swim at 33

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I didn't learn to swim until more than 10 years after the day I almost drowned.

I'd loved being in the water as a kid, but had been a terrible swimmer. Where I grew up, the swimming levels were ordered by colour, so as we learned to dog paddle and breaststroke and tread water, we passed through Yellow, Orange, Red, Maroon, Blue, Green and so on. Except in my case, it was Yellow, Orange, Red, Maroon, Maroon, Maroon, Blue, Blue, Blue, Blue and that's it. There is nothing to be said for being 13 years old, surrounded by six-year-olds who can front crawl you under the table.

At the age of 23, while backpacking in Australia, I spent a day at Manly Beach in Sydney. Manly is the kind of place that looks like the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition exploded, with golden gods and goddesses splayed out on the sand, their rock-hard abs and north-pointing breasts gleaming in the sunlight. In my orange tankini, with my see-through skin and ironing board chest, I was the very definition of "one of these things does not belong." I ran into the water quickly, hoping no one would notice me.

"Be careful," my friend called out. "The tide's really strong here. They call it 'Backpackers RIP.'"

"It's OK," I waved him off. "I'll just bob around for a bit."

And bob I did, for a few pleasant minutes, enjoying the cool water and the fact that no one could see below my neck. Until I noticed my feet were no longer touching the ground.

I tried to swim back towards shore, but couldn't. It was like I was in a water treadmill, swimming harder and harder but staying in exactly the same place, until I realized that wasn't even true: the distance between the shore and me was actually growing by the second. I began to lose my breath, which isn't hard when you haven't swum a lap in over a decade. Finally, I realized I was drowning. Forget the orange tankini -- this was really humiliating.

Just then, a blond, muscled, perfectly tanned man appeared before me on a surfboard.

"Hop on," he commanded.

I needed no further convincing.

"Now lie down on your stomach," he said.

"Oh no!" I said, my voice shaking from exertion. "I'm fine just sitting up."

"Lie on your stomach," he repeated, more firmly, and it was then that I saw what was written in huge red letters on his surfboard. No, he wasn't some random handsome Australian with a weakness for translucent, flat-chested women. He was a lifeguard. And later, he would be sitting around with his lifeguard buddies, rolling his eyes about yet another water-logged backpacker he had to rescue from Manly Beach.

If I weren't so grateful to be alive, I would definitely have died of embarrassment.

You'd think I would have signed up for swimming lessons as soon as I made it to dry land, but I always had an excuse. I was too busy. The nearby pool was too crowded. The only one-piece bathing suit I owned was a striped green number, circa 1995, which would surely be the laughing stock of the Speedo-wearing masses. Plus, how likely was it that I would end up in another life-threatening situation? But the truth of it was that I was too ashamed. I was 33 years old and didn't know how to swim properly. So best just to keep it that way.

Until my doctor strongly advised me to stop running and take up swimming.

My first time in my local pool, I barely lasted 20 minutes. I did a mix of sort-of-half-breaststroke and some kind of back-floating-arms-waving thing, and had to take long breaks between laps. But wobbling home that day, I felt incredible. I had forgotten how swimming makes every cell in your body feels like it's taken a huge breath of mountain air.

I returned later that week, and that's when I met the lifeguard. This one wasn't blond or tanned -- in fact, he was short and bowlegged, with a big, goofy smile. As I inched my way along my lane, I saw him watching me and immediately began to panic. Was he going to try and give me advice? Could he tell how bad my technique was? Was he going to suggest I come in on Saturdays and stick my head under water with the five-year-olds?

"Can you try kicking your legs harder when you're on your back?" he asked, when I finally arrived, panting, at the edge of the pool. "Like you're kicking a soccer ball."

He did a little demonstration and was so smiley and encouraging I felt I owed it to him to give it a go. To my surprise, I found myself moving through the water at twice my normal speed. He waited for me at the other end of the pool, and when I arrived he applauded.

"You did it!" he beamed.

"I'm just learning to swim properly," I apologized.

"I'm proud of you," he said, and I could have hugged him.

Then he added, "You're funny when you swim."

I went cold. Now he was going to tell me how I looked like a drunk golden retriever and that it was a wonder I stayed afloat at all, and by the way, what was I thinking with the green striped bathing suit?

"What do you mean?" I asked.

The lifeguard did an impression of me swimming: legs kicking, arms backstroking away, face plastered with a giant, kid-like grin.

Since then, I've been at the pool two to four times a week. Swimming, which once put fear into my heart, has become my saving grace. I find myself craving the silent peacefulness of underwater and the power of moving through it, like something that's more than human, but also not human at all.

I still can't front crawl properly, by the way. But that's not what I needed to learn to swim. I just needed the right person to stand on the side of the pool cheering me on, until I had it in me to cheer for myself.