“You’re not comfortable with your head under the water, are you?” When you have just swum what you thought was a decent length, paying particular attention to cutting a graceful line through the water while maintaining a decent speed, it is quite a damning assessment.
When it is delivered by Ian Thorpe; a swimmer with five Olympic gold medals to his name though, there is nothing to do but swallow your pride - along with a not insignificant amount of water – and admit to what you knew you were trying to cover up.
“No, not really,” I reply, shame-faced. But when the Thorpedo volunteers that even an Olympic legend like him used to hate being submersed, it becomes a little easier to bear. “I couldn’t handle the chlorine when I was young,” he says quietly, adding: “don’t worry, it’s natural, you just have to train yourself to be balanced and calm in the water”.
It is just one of the valuable pieces of advice the Australian swimmer, who has won many fans during his time as a BBC pundit for the Olympics, handed out to people at Tooting Bec Lido in south west London this morning.
He said he dreamed up the idea of giving free swimming lessons at a London pool in the back of a taxi last week. “I thought about it because the response to the Olympic Games in general has been great. I wanted to do something locally, I thought I would just tweet that I was coming and if people want swimming lessons, then great,” he said.
Thorpe spent the morning teaching all-comers: from the toddlers who struggled to keep their heads above water, to the talented adult swimmers - via the Independent reporter who struggled to keep his head above water.
He said that the goodwill around the Games was something that would likely inspire a lot of people to think about taking up a sport but he said he wanted to raise awareness because many would find it difficult to find somewhere to go and get proper coaching.
After surveying The Independent’s front crawl ‘technique’, Thorpe recommended first a strange exercise to remove the deep-seated fear of being under the water: sit with your mouth open and halfway under the surface and make a funny noise, he said. Later, there would be a much-needed lesson in grace and calmness in the water.
Speaking after the session, Thorpe said that the government needs to play the role of the “big sponsor” of sport if Team GB’s Olympic success is to be replicated in years to come. He added that Britain needs to look to his home country’s relatively poor Games as a warning about becoming too complacent in the good times.
As one parent, whose young child received a lesson from the Thorpedo, put it: “it would be great if the Olympic legacy meant more people taking up sport.” And, after The Independent’s first length, it became clear the extent to which some Britons need proper facilities and coaching.