In at the deep end

Park Life
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The Independent Culture
ALL LAST week my son Darcy was worried about his first school swimming lesson, and I in turn was worried that his inability to swim at seven was turning into a full-blown phobia. The poor boy has inherited his mother's tendency to gnaw away at any given problem like a dog at a bone: well after bedtime he would drift off into a troubled sleep, fretting about the lesson, before waking up the next morning with the threatening mass of the swimming pool still floating in front of his eyes.

Every conversation would return to the theme, and the mention of any school would prompt speculation from him about whether it had compulsory swimming, to which I invariably answered Yes. "Well I'm not going there," he would declare. So if anyone knows of a school in south-east England where swimming does not feature on the curriculum, Darcy would like an application form by return of post.

My insistence that surely all seven-year-olds could swim only made things worse. "I'll be the only one in the baby pool," Darcy wailed. "And everyone will laugh at me." I finally managed to cheer him up by confiding that even I sometimes get frightened. For example, I said, I was frightened of taking part in the London Triathlon, which happens tomorrow. Delighted, he ran straight off to my wife, crowing: "Muuum, guess what: Dad's really scared of doing the triathlon."

At the time, I thought this was a parental white lie, so it came as some surprise that this week it was my turn to start worrying as the countdown to the triathlon hit single figures. After weeks of telling myself it was time to get down to some serious training, and then forgetting all about it, I found myself fixating on the terrifying challenge now only days away.

There was something distantly familiar about the half delicious feeling of dread that began to gnaw at the pit of my stomach: it was a classic attack of the butterflies, that nervous condition that used to precede each new experience through childhood and adolescence, when life seemed to offer an endless succession of firsts: first day at school, first stay away from home, first time on a plane, first kiss. Sadly, perhaps, nothing much seems to register on the same scale any more: first day at a new job is hardly a daunting prospect by the time you are on the fourth page of your CV, and most of the things I haven't done yet I don't want to do - bungee jumping springs to mind. I suppose this is one of the reasons I put myself forward for the triathlon in the first place.

Just like Darcy's, my fears are a combination of the straightforwardly physical with the potential embarrassment of making a complete public prat of myself. Will I be able to get my compulsory wet-suit off after the one-mile swim in the London docks, I found myself thinking, or will I get it stuck around my ankles with everyone laughing at me? (Which reminds me: I must practise high-speed wet-suit removal). Will I get a flat tyre on the 25-mile bike ride, and be unable to locate the puncture? (I draw the line at practising puncture repairs.) Will I get a bad attack of wobbly knees at the transition from the bike ride to the 10 kilometre run, and fall flat on my face?

As it turned out, of course, Darcy had nothing to worry about. The first swimming lesson was devoted to assessing the children's standards; they had to do a width, but were allowed to walk it in the shallow end if that was all they felt up to - which Darcy duly did, finishing up in the beginners' group with about a third of his classmates. No wonder the Aussies are running away with the gold medals at the Commonwealth Games.

The closest I can come tomorrow to walking in the shallow end will be to plod round the triathlon course at a slow and steady lick, at least until a final sprint in the running leg if I have any energy left. I hope I'm not so slow that everyone laughs at me ... and I'm sure I'll find plenty of others in the same position. But just to guarantee the possibility of making a fool of myself, I'll set myself a target of three hours: if I take any longer, you can all have a good laugh at my expense.

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