In a previous article for BENT I mentioned not being allowed to take part in any form of sport in secondary school. One thing I could have done was swimming—it was already known before the Second World War what benefits disabled people could get from being in water.

At the age of twelve, in Primary Seven (the last class of primary school in the UK), I did get into the local swimming pool with the rest of my class, where I received instruction of a sort by holding a rope under the supervision of our instructor. Although I couldn't really swim properly, I did benefit from being in the pool. This stopped when I entered secondary school at the age of thirteen because it was assumed that all pupils were competent swimmers, something they did outside of school hours.

Compulsory physical activities for able-bodied students were rugby for boys, hockey for girls, with other physical training and athletic events for the sports day at the end of the school year. We few disabled pupils (I with cerebral palsy, several with polio) were left out. Instead of sports we had to take extra lessons.

I discovered the possibility for genuine swimming only at the age of forty, when vacationing at a holiday complex in Malta. At home I had been swimming in a disabled group using inflatable flotation devices called armbands, so when I discovered the pool in Malta I started swimming using my armbands there. By chance I met some local people who used the pool to teach disabled children and it was they who introduced me to something called the Halliwick Method, specially designed for disabled people. They gave me a contact address in London, and from London I was able to find an instructor in Edinburgh. This was in October of 1983, when I was due to start my final period of postgraduate study.

The Halliwick method, based on scientific principles of hydrostatics and body mechanics, was devised by James McMillan, an engineer and Amateur Swimming Association teacher, at Halliwick School for Girls, London, in 1949. Perhaps most important for student confidence, McMillan's method depends on one teacher to each student, the teacher always in the pool with the student. Instruction begins with maximum support, and so when I was taken into the Moray House Swimming Club for disabled people I had not only the armbands I was accustomed to using but the exclusive support of an individual teacher as well.

Halliwick training is thorough. Apart from the obvious mechanics of swimming itself, for example, it includes finding appropriate and safe methods of entering and leaving the pool for those like me who don't need a hoist. The method of instruction combines swimming with water safety skills such as coming into a standing position from backstroke or breaststroke, and treading water.

My training started with breath control and balance control. My instructor withdrew artificial support in stages: first the armbands that I was accustomed to using were gradually let down and then dispensed with entirely, so that I was swimming independently, but still with my instructor beside me. In a 25-metre pool I was able to increase my range to half-lengths and ultimately to lengths.

At first I found that when I was on the backstroke I tended to drift to the left, but the left side of my body gradually strengthened, and I developed two forms of the backstroke, the Old English style (both arms) and the alternate-arm style. The breaststroke took longer to master. When I began I could hardly get my legs off the bottom of the pool until I was into deeper water, but now I use a modified form. I still have more leg movement on the backstroke than on the breaststroke.

One of the principles of proper swimming is conserving energy, (no excessive splashing, as in the "doggy paddle" so many boys do), something I think is especially important for disabled swimmers. I also had to learn to keep my head and shoulders down in order to increase my efficiency in moving through the water.

As my confidence increased I began using other pools, finally going to the Olympic-standard Royal Commonwealth Pool in Edinburgh, where I got to the stage of doing ten lengths. In due course I was able to participate in disabled swimming galas and even won a bronze medal at one.

After realizing I was gay, in my late fifties, I found the local branch of the Gay Outdoor Club (GOC). I came out to a gay friend and it was he who introduced me to the swimming group which met at the Royal Commonwealth Pool. I joined them and went for a meal afterwards. I also started to attend their monthly social gatherings and made friends in the wider gay community.

I believe the background of how I learned to swim is of interest to other gay men who had bad times at school because they were not good at conventional team games. Through my contacts in the Edinburgh branch of GOC I have found friends in other gay organizations and have been on holidays with other gay men. I find them all good company, with experiences I can relate to. Even those who are gay dads appreciate that because I did not have a normal childhood, I don't get on well with children. And unlike heterosexuals, these don't go on about their children and grandchildren all the time!

Swimming, massage, and the sauna help me to keep my muscles supple, more important than ever now that I've developed arthritis in both hips. A physiotherapist told me that as long as I can keep up this combination of swimming with other exercises in the pool, combined with heat treatment, there would be no risk of me losing my mobility and having to use a wheelchair. I can recommend swimming to all disabled gay men, not only for their disabilities, but as a way of getting into the wider gay community.

© 2005 Charles Coventry
Header desigh by Tom Metz (Painting from David Hockney's "Paper Pools Book").

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CHARLES COVENTRY WRITES:
I was born in 1943 near Glasgow, Scotland, with mild cerebral palsy. At the age of six it was discovered that I had spatial perception difficulties and was innumerate, but with high linguistic ability. Only in my late fifties did I realize I was gay; since then I have made many good friends in the local gay community. Now over sixty and with two postgraduate degrees, I no longer have to look for a full-time job and am free to cultivate freelance and voluntary work opportunities.

 

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BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/September 2005