The public swimming pools in Sea Point draw in the crowds. Picture: Kim Ludbrook

Learning new things means you’re the beginner in the class - the one with the cheap goggles and the dazed look, writes Helen Walne.

Cape Town - Last week, I learnt a lot of new things: how to bend my elbows during freestyle, how to use a pull buoy between my thighs without feeling like a Smurf giving birth, how to hold my face in the water, and how to read a clock through foggy goggles.

I’ve done this before - ruined a perfectly good hobby by formalising it. Last year, I bought a guitar and spent hours learning The National songs from YouTube. B threatened to have me exiled to Worcester if I didn’t stop singing about honey and milk and being covered in rag and bone sympathy.

So I signed up for lessons with a guitar teacher in Plumstead who drew squiggles on paper and never shouted at me when I was late. After each lesson, I would cross paths with a teenage boy, an electric guitar slung over his shoulder. We would fist-bump and nod at each other. I was one of the cool kids. I had a slew of open chords to practise.

I never practised. I drew pictures of trolls on the back of my notes. I started skipping lessons. I stopped playing. The pressure to perform was too great and the theory too complicated. If B-flat was the same as A-sharp, what was the point of having both? I became grumpy and anxious and sang Air Supply a lot.

You’d think I would have learnt my lesson about learning and lessons. After all, I’d been doing just fine swimming lengths at the Sea Point pool, admiring the mussel shells on the bottom and spitting out seagull feathers. But last Friday, I found myself at an unfamiliar swimming pool in the loamy light of dawn, struggling to understand instructions from a coach.

“Why does he say two by five and not 10 lengths?” I whispered to the woman next to me.

“Because it’s two sets - you take a break after the first five,” she said, looking at me like I was slightly smelly.

The coach told me my stroke was wrong, that I windmilled in the water with arms that were too straight. I also breathed too far back, looked up in the water, kicked too much and twisted my torso. By the 9 000th length, I began to feel like the fat kid at the back of the class who had pie flakes around his mouth.

Afterwards, once I had retrieved my lungs from the deep end, I asked the coach to be honest. “Do I need to go to a beginner’s class?” I said. He shook his head. “Am I the most rubbish person you’ve ever had?” He shook his head. Then, feeling like a Russian ballet dancer who has defected to America and has a lot of raw talent but little training, I asked: “Can you work with me?” The coach paused. “I would say you have a minimum of 10 years of improvement,” he replied. I tried not to vomit on the spot.

It’s not so much the quantity of learning that terrifies me - I’m quite capable of playing the guitar until my fingers bleed or swimming lengths until I pass out. It’s the quality required - the attention to detail and the technical mastering. I only recently learnt how to use nail clippers - for years I thought the pushy-down bit was where the clipping happened. Now when I swim, I have to concentrate on at least five things - all at the same time. That’s like drinking while walking, something I have yet to master.

Learning new things also means you’re the beginner in the class - the one with the cheap goggles that fog up and the dazed look on your face when you’re asked to play a G. I’ve been thinking of spray-painting my costume with the words “I’m really proficient at driving, cooking curry and walking around”, just so the others know I’m not actually brain-damaged. It’s doubly hard being a novice at an advanced age. I’ve always had this quaint notion that at my age I should know everything about everything. If I had to climb into the cockpit of a fighter jet, I would know precisely what to do, and if someone gave me a baby goat, I’d know what to feed it and at what age it should start talking.

However, on Saturday, I learnt some things that make me optimistic about my ability to stick with the swimming. A man called Jason signed up for class, making him the novice of the squad - if only by one day. I discovered I’m not the slowest in the group, and that if I concentrate, I can change my arms from windmills to mechanical diggers. I also realised that in the silence of submergence, no one cares about whether you’re fast or slow, young or old.

There’s just blue water, black lines and limbs propelling the body forward - one stroke at a time, in the best way possible.

* Helen Walne is an award-winning columnist and writer based in Cape Town.

Cape Argus