Monday, 11 April 2011

Helen Pitt - They never told me ... I wasn't a champion (Sydney Morning Herald 12 Jan 2011)

Above: My Safe Swimmer Certificate, 1967. Seemingly lost are my "Intermediate Star" and "bronze Medallion" awards!

The following piece appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald's Summer section on Wed 12 January 2011. I couldn't find it on-line to link to, so quote it in full here.

I love this article because I identify with a few points in it:

  • Though I never swam competitively, I have had a lifelong love of swimming, since I stood a little way off from kids who were being taught in private lseesons at the local pool, and followed what they did and taught myself
  • I too see swimming as "therapy' and swim through all sorts of emotional turmoil. It clears the mind in a meditative way and sometimes a solution will find its way into my head
  • I had parents who never believed in limiting their daughters and encouraged their every endeavour. There was no sense of girls being limited in my house!

They never told me. . . I wasn't a champion

by Helen Pitt

"Like many Sydneysiders, Olympic swimming coach Forbes Carlile taught me to swim. One whiff of a heated, chlorinated pool today takes me immediately back to the indoor pool in the backyard of his Ryde home, where he and his wife, Ursula, taught legions of us tadpoles, dolphins and turtles to master our strokes. He's of course best known for his star student, Shane Gould - whom he coached to triple Olympic gold medal status and who is the only person to hold the world record in all freestyle distances from 100 metres to 1500 metres. I doubt he'd even remember but I remember him and his shock of jet-black hair following us up and down the pool. My Carlile-endorsed two laps of dog paddle certificate took pride of place on my bedroom noticeboard for many years.

Thanks to the benefit of a backyard pool, swimming became my favourite sport - the only one I was ever any good at. I made it to the area and district school finals in freestyle and breaststroke on several occasions. Not only did it become my sport; swimming became my preferred form of therapy. There's no sadness I haven't been able to swim myself out of; there was no homesickness a few laps of Australian crawl wasn't able to cure during the many years I lived outside this country.

As the big man of swimming, Mr Carlile, who turns 90 this year, said, 'to swim well is an asset for life." It's an asset that has certainly served me well.

But he also said something on our last day of swimming lessons that I didn't hear. I must have been barely six. As I was getting out of the pool, he gave a deep sigh and said to my mother: "Take her home - she's as good as she's ever going to get."

My mother never told me this. She wasn't going to let my swimming career be eclipsed by his dire predictions. Instead, she let me loose on the backyad swimming pool, cheered me on at every swimming carnival and packed our tiny Morris Mini Minor with other young swimmers to go to swim meets all over Sydney where we could compete and display our prowess. I've often wondered if she did this to spite him, though I doubt it. She was just never a woman who was going to let her daughter be told anything that was in any way self-limiting or had the words "this is as good as you are ver going to get."

It wasn't until I hit my 40s and had a lifetime of swimmign cerificates to vouch for my competence in the pool that my mum told me what Mr Carlile had said. Frankly I was shocked and glad I didn't know at the time. I have often thought to write to him tell him he was wrong: I did become a better swimmer.

I don't blame him, though. I was probably pretty hopeless when he trained me. I've come to see this story as less of a random comment, or maybe, a joke from an exhausted swim coach and more a parable on parenting: don't necessarily let the experts tell you about the talents of your child; instead, stand back and let them show you. And never underestimate the power of findign somethign you love and practising to improve. Which is how it's been for me and swimming; it's been one of the most endurign love affairs of my life.

As I watch my mother slip into an Alzheimic fog, forgetting names, daes, places and people, I know there are many things she'll never be able to tell me now. But I've become grateful for the things she purposedly never told me. Sometimes, being a good parent is about the things you don't tell your children. "

Below: Malvern Baths in 1927. Little changed 40 years later when I earned the Safe Swimming Certificate there.

Below: Mum would sit on this grass or one of these benches when I was very young - 4, 5 - cavorting in the water. Later, by the time I was 8 or 9 I was going to the pool with my friends on our own. As the best swimmer, I was often "in charge".

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