'I challenged the myth that Black men can't swim - and changed my life'

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'I challenged the myth that Black men can't swim - and changed my life'

In the past week I have celebrated two of the greatest achievements of my life.

One was accepting the role of President of the Sports Journalists Association. The other filled me with just as much pride – I learned to swim.

Today, on World Drowning Prevention Day, I can’t begin to sum up the magnitude of that second milestone to you.

For many years I believed I was aquaphobic – so terrified of pools and the sea that my kids stopped asking me to join in their fun on holidays.

I bought into the garbage about bone density in Black men, and Afro-Caribbeans in general being scared of water. I’ve even laughed with friends similarly resigned to it.

Body found in hunt for missing teenager, 17, four months after he disappeared erideuiqtqiqdrinvBody found in hunt for missing teenager, 17, four months after he disappeared

But over the last few years it has rankled, especially when I’ve watched other dads making memories with their little ones and teenagers.

Then, in May, I met Jo Melchior from the Black Swimming Association. It was a meeting that would change my life.

While others pushed and tried to cajole me into learning, Jo pumped me full of information.

She explained how she’d worked with hundreds of Black people over the years whose experience was similar to mine – they’d been failed at school by teachers who’d bought into society’s stereotypes.

It made sense when I recalled how my junior school (Year 7) teacher had laughed and dismissed me as I flailed about in the water while my classmates were gliding.

Jo provided me with the statistics that remain an indictment: 95% of Black adults and 80% of Black children in England do not swim.

She drove two hours one Saturday morning in June to meet me at 7.45am to get started. Soon, she had all six feet two of me floating, face down, surrendering myself to the beauty of water.

She taught me the right way to breathe, to open my eyes, how to stand when I needed to without panicking. My belief in myself grew as I learned about the little things, like the cold water shock and that air is for flotation.

These are basics if you know them already, but for me they were the nuance that helped my confidence reach a crescendo.

By Week Two I was jumping in and even able to swim a few yards of breaststroke underwater.

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I’d smashed the psychological choke hold in which water had held me in for more than four decades.

By Week Three I was rehearsing ways to stun my children by swimming out of the blue when we go on holiday later this summer. I’d done it.

If you – like me – are of a certain age, you can do it too. More than 400 people every year drown in this country. So make World Drowning Prevention Day your turning point.

Get in touch with the Black Swimming Association ([email protected]) for more details. Many of the people who were as terrified as me are now terrific teachers for them.

Also try the RNLI (rnli.org) for information on water safety and tips on how to swim safely abroad on abta.com.

If you live near me in north London, you’re likely to see me having fun in one of GLL’s pools at gll.org. That’s all thanks to Jo. She is representative of a fabulous cohort of instructors at the BSA.

If, like me, you’re a parent who wants to enjoy summer with your kids and lose the anchor of anxiety, drop them a line. You won’t regret it.

Darren Lewis

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