I became a swimming teacher to help other South Asian women afraid of water

It was a cold winter’s day at the age of six in the 1980s and my parents told me not to forget my swim bag because I had my first lesson at school. 

They made me go to the lesson as part of my gym class and my mum stayed to watch.

But I felt really upset, embarrassed and I didn’t want to wear swimwear with my legs on display. I had tried swimming before but on every occasion, felt uncomfortable and shy.

I’ll never forget getting into the water, and absolutely hating it! Being surrounded by others, the thought of drowning, the chlorine smell – it was too much.

Eventually, after a few classes it got a bit easier. I got better at swimming and I became more comfortable and less embarrassed, but it was never something I looked forward to. 

As a family, we would go swimming to the local leisure centre. My father taught my mum to swim when she was 36 and she would go four times a week.

I was never one to take it seriously. I just messed around, did a bit of swimming and then just walked in the pool. I never loved it because I felt scared of the deep end or swallowing the water – it was something I used to always worry about. There also wasn’t swimwear like we have today, where you can cover up if you feel more comfortable.

In my adulthood, my mum continued her swimming and when we joined a gym or went to a leisure centre together, I would always try to avoid swimming.

That all changed when I turned 40 last year. I was feeling very anxious about my health – I had put on weight and I couldn’t get into exercising.

But I began to notice the benefits of swimming from my mum, who loves it. She is 71 now and she still swims nearly everyday. She has built a strong core, it’s an all-over workout and it’s very low impact so it’s safe and good for mental health and anxiety.

So, with her gentle encouragement, I decided to take on a challenge by the Alzheimer’s Society to swim one, five or 10 miles in 30 days. I also wanted to do the challenge because my had friend lost his father to dementia.

I was initially worried about doing it though as I signed myself up without even knowing if I could complete it. I hadn’t trained at all – I had just been doing some cardio in the gym, skipping, cycling and walking. So I chose to do the five-mile challenge.

Getting back into the pool for the first time was scary, and exciting at the same time – it was then I realised the benefits and how good I felt. I noticed a difference after the first couple of days.

I would swim about 60 to 70 lengths per day over five days – so I actually swam more than five miles and I completed it so quickly, I was surprised at myself.

I didn’t think I could swim five lengths, let alone that many in one day with no break. I was over the moon when I completed the challenge and I felt so happy.

I posted on social media about completing it and then suddenly had lots of requests from Asian women asking me to teach them to swim. That’s when my friend, who had just learnt to swim, told me I should consider teaching as she knew many Asian women over 40 who wanted to learn.

This was because they lack confidence and never learnt as children, as it’s not something Asian women do. In fact, many consider it a taboo because it’s showing your body when men are around. I never felt this from my parents but certainly did from wider society.

When I spoke to women who really wanted to learn, many felt sad they couldn’t swim with their children and grandchildren. 

I wanted to do something to help them. So I did some research and signed up to get a qualification from Triton Training, who provide a Swim England qualification. Level one took three days and it involved some theory and two days of practical in the pool – learning the core aquatics and movement – as well as health and safety.

I found it hard to be on a course with people much younger than me so I just tried to stay focused, be positive and not look at age as a barrier. I have just passed level one and am now qualified as a swimming teacher assistant, which means I can start to give one-to-one teaching to adults.

This has also been a new and much-needed line of work for me. I lost all my work in journalism because of Covid and this is a very different path – one that hasn’t been cheap. 

I was able to embark on this new challenge thanks to support in my community, including a bursary from Triton Training and help with my fees from a friend, Bob Singh from Chess Mortgages.

He wanted to help because he explained that people had helped him on his own journey, so he wanted to give back. As a Sikh, it’s selfless service. 

Without this I wouldn’t be where I am now so I am really grateful.

To help the Asian community learn a new skill has been so rewarding.

I have one lady who is afraid of the deep end but she has never taken steps to get over this.

She wants to swim with her child during the holidays so we have a session booked to deal with her worries. I feel really humbled and privileged that she feels comfortable enough to trust me with this.

Swimming has changed my life, my health and given me a lot of confidence

I believe that being able to understand and personally relate to the people I teach allows me to step into their shoes and know why they’re feeling scared or anxious.

I had one lady in her 50s who was taking lessons with someone else and she felt the teacher didn’t really help her with her confidence. I guided her, helped her to swim from one side of the pool to the other and explained how to breathe underwater, when to kick her legs and when her arms go over – it’s all part of a rhythm that we need to master and then it falls into place.

The Swimming Teachers Association last month released the findings from an industry-first Inclusion Study, which found a significant majority agreed that swimming is an activity that everyone should engage in, but that it can exclude some groups and communities – for example those from low socio-economic backgrounds, religious groups, ethnically-diverse communities and disabled people. 

I helped an aunty in her 70s learn how to swim. She had never learnt before as she was too busy doing the duties at home of looking after the children and chores.

She told me she felt really at ease with my way of teaching because I am patient, calm and also being able to speak Punjabi, I can communicate with older women. She is now enjoying being in the pool and she feels healthier and happier. 

I’ve only been teaching for a short time but I’m proud to have helped four people learn to swim in the last month.

I have also helped a Black woman in her 40s who is really scared of the water, I helped support her using the noodle (float) and guided her how to lift her legs and swim in the shallow end. I got her blowing bubbles under the water to help her with the breathing. I asked her to kick her legs, toes pointing forward.

Through just a few basic lessons, she is becoming more confident and instead of saying she cannot do it, she now says she can do it, and she feels more determined to learn, but before was ready to give up.  

Swimming has changed my life, my health and given me a lot of confidence. 

It’s a sport that needs more diversity, especially Asian women. This festive period, I am offering free basic lessons for anyone who wants to learn. 

I would love to be able to help those who want to learn a new skill even if it’s just to help them build confidence. 

I find so much joy in helping others and seeing people smile, it makes my day.

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