So there I was, hesitating on the side of the largest man-made freshwater Lido in Europe, water temperature around eight degrees C, dreading getting in, wondering what the hell I was doing. Hilary and my sister got straight in and set off swimming lengths; I already knew there was no way on God’s earth I was going to do a length. I can’t remember how I got in; I think I went down the steps, which just prolongs the agony and means you suffer a slow, tortuous immersion, including the dreadful moment when you have to finally get your shoulders under.
Three years later, hardened cold water swimmer that I am, I must confess that I am still not a great lover of the initial immersion. Is anyone? Does anyone stand in the changing room, divesting themselves of their warm and snuggly clothing, thinking “Oh, wow, in a couple of minutes I’m going to be ABSOLUTELY FREEZING, yippee!”? Somehow I doubt it. I still have to have a couple of stern words with the small whimpery cowardly bit of me which would prefer to keep its woolly on and just watch from the side, thank you. Back then it was harder in that I didn’t have any experience to call on, but easier in that I knew I was only going in for a moment, oh dear me, yes. Nothing was going to keep me in there for any length of time.
I did it. I got in, I got my shoulders under, I actually swam. Two, perhaps two and a half widths of head-up breaststroke. It wasn’t exactly triumphant, since with Hilary and Cal crawling up and down I felt a bit of a twit paddling across the pool with my head sticking out. When I got out, after possibly as much as a whole two minutes, Hilary and Caroline were still swimming lengths, so I took myself off, feeling all weird and tingly, to the sauna, where I sat self-consciously for a bit. Caroline completed about six lengths, Hilary I’m sure did considerably more. I muttered a bit wimpily about my two and a half widths. We changed, we had a coffee. Hilary and Caroline enthused, I pretended to enthuse. And then we set off in search of breakfast, and that might have been it, except for one thing.
On that particular day Brian Lodge was on duty, that prince among lifeguards. As we were leaving he asked how we had enjoyed it. Oh, wonderful! said Cal. If I lived nearby I’d be here every day! Where do you live? Brian asked. Stroud – yeah, that is a bit too far. And where do you live? Um…Tooting, I confessed. Oh, really, he said, and what’s your excuse?
Looking into his kind, enthusiastic, encouraging face I knew I’d been rumbled. I had no excuse. The universe was extending me an invitation, and it would be churlish in the extreme (not to mention unforgivably wimpy) to refuse it.
And thus I became a member of South London Swimming Club.