Ian Rattray, a 52-year-old member of South East London Vision (SELVis), has written about his experience taking swimming lessons organised by SELVis and the charity Sense. Ian was born short-sighted so he has never had 20:20 vision, and he was recently diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa.

My first experience of water as a child was not a good one. When I was around 4 or 5 my sister and I managed to capsize a pedalo.  I had to be rescued from the pool we were in.  This was not helped by swimming lessons at school where I was generally ignored.

40 years on… I’m now living in South East London and have been involved with SELVis from quite early on as a member.  The opportunity to learn to swim was offered by SELVis and SENSE earlier this year.  Which I duly ignored.  However, after some persuading by my partner I purchased a pair of swimming trunks and flip-flops, packed them and a towel into a bag and went to the Castle Leisure Centre at Elephant and Castle for my first swimming lesson since I was about 12 years old…

To say I was nervous would be an understatement. Even entering the changing area was nerve racking.  What can I say about my first dip into a swimming pool in 40 years? Well it felt very cold.  I think this initial shock helped me forget about some of my initial fears.

Our instructors were Janet, good cop and Sandra, bad cop. I say this with affection.  Janet’s approach was very gentle whereas Sandra was pushier which I, by the end, was grateful for. I explained to Janet that I’ve never been able to swim and about my experiences as a child. She was great; all she asked me to do was walk the length of the pool, backwards!  Well this was achieved, with aplomb I’d like to think.

Well I thought I could walk up and down the pool backwards for an hour. Oh no, Janet had other ideas.  “Now Ian, how about blowing bubbles”, she said. Blowing bubbles, yes, this means getting your mouth in the water… I have to say I felt a little different about this.  Not so keen.  This is when the real nerves kicked in.  The side of the pool became my friend which I held onto for dear life.  After a little coaxing by Janet and my partner Chikodi, I kind of tried blowing bubbles.  I discovered it’s very difficult to put your mouth in the water while trying to keep your nose out.  Doesn’t work.  Ok I thought you’re going to have to get your nose wet.  So a nose full of water later I stand up spluttering and pretty well ready to get out and go home.

At this point Janet suggested I try practising blowing the bubbles. She reminds me to breathe in before putting my mouth in. Yes, that worked!  Elementary you may exclaim.  But don’t forget water has been a foreign land to me for many years.  I have to learn its customs and make friends with it. Eventually I started to get the hang of getting my mouth and nose in the water while breathing out. What I realised quite quickly is if you breathe out too hard water shoots up your nose.  First lesson, learn to breathe slowly while under water.

The next session I was introduced to a noodle. Now usually I’d be eating a plate of this stuff but not these ones.  Just in case you’re not sure what a noodle is well it’s a long cylindrical floatation device which you can wrap around your body to aid buoyancy.

My next lesson was with Sandra, bad cop remember… So here I am starting to feel OK about getting my mouth and nose in the water. Happily blowing bubbles by the side of the pool, still hanging on of course.  “So,” Sandra said . “I hear from Janet you’ve started using a noodle?”  What could I say but yes.

The next thing I know a noodle is wrapped around me and I’m told to push from the side and kick. What!  Hold on, this wasn’t in the contract.  Well I gave it ago and to my surprise I moved from one side of the pool to the other in a kind of parabolic curve.  Of course I did my best to keep my head out of the water.  Was this good or what?

No… “Ok,” said Sandra.  ?”This time blow bubbles while you kick.” Hold on, surely this would mean getting my whole face in the water? Um, I’m not sure I was ready for that.  However, by the fourth session I was gaining more confidence and by the fifth I was actually getting my face in the water, blowing bubbles and kicking.  Third lesson, confidence will come with perseverance.

I think it was by the sixth session I started to flail my arms in an attempt to help me move forward. And, surprisingly enough I moved much quicker than I thought possible.  When I got it right, the end of the pool would suddenly be upon me.  The odd thing is I had no sense of movement in the water.  I would often ask, “Where am I,” or am I moving.”  I’m guessing this is to do with not having any visual reference to tell me I’m passing an object.  It’s also to do with I had my eyes shut all the time while I’m trying to thrash along.

During the seventh session Sandra got me to hold onto the side of the pool and kick to help maintain buoyancy. She got me to put my face in and blow bubbles then she told me to let go.  You’re joking I remember thinking.  But after a while I tried and for the first time I had a sense of what it was like to float without support.  I think this was the pivotal moment that made me realise swimming may be a reality for me.

We get to the last session. Well there was definitely a tension in the room.  I just knew Sandra was going to make the final push today, the big one.  Swimming without aids of any kind…  And you know what, I was right. When we were approaching the end of the session and Sandra comes over… Yes you can guess what she said.  “OK Ian.  I want you to stand a dozen paces from the pool edge.  I’m here, you’ll be OK.  I want you to push off and kick.”

You would not believe how much my heart rate increased. Even now thinking about it I can feel the tension. I took a deep breath, crouched down and launched… Guess what?  I didn’t sink!  I couldn’t believe it.  I actually floated.  It was incredible.  The first time I’ve ever come close to actually swimming.  We did this a couple more times.

It didn’t stop there. This time Sandra said “OK, we’ll try for a length.” I stood at the end of the pool. Twelve meters can feel an awful long way.  Again Sandra reassured me she was with me.  So I crouched down, took in a deep breath and launched. To say I swam with grace would be a lie. Frankly it was more like fighting for my life.  But, I did it!  I managed 10 metres under my own power in water without sinking!

It was amazing. I’d not felt so thrilled for a long time.  In fact I spilt a few tears into the swimming pool.  To swim for the first time ever in my life is a very hard feeling to explain.  Fourth lesson, the impossible is possible.

This achievement was not a solo effort. A huge thanks to my partner Chikodi.  Without whom I’d never got this far.  Also, a massive thanks to Jess from SELVis, SELVis, Sense and Metro Blind Sport for providing the opportunity and the swimming instructors at the Castle for their patience and instruction.  Thank you all for getting me started.