Taking the plunge
2019-07-15 | By Huw Hughes
For many Dutch people, swimming comes as second nature. It’s a skill they learn at a young age, much like riding a bike, and is one they’ll never forget. But what if you didn’t learn to swim as a child?
Perhaps more than in many other countries, schools in the Netherlands traditionally focus on swimming from a young age. In fact, once schools across the country gave compulsory swimming lessons. While that’s no longer the case, many schools still offer the activity as part of their curriculum.
It is unsurprising that a country with almost a third of its land below sea level makes such an effort to teach people to swim. With the immense network of waterways twisting throughout the country, it makes sense that people should learn how to swim from a young age. But swimming offers more benefits than simply acting as a safety measure for the clumsy ones among us.
A 2017 study, conducted by Swim England, found that swimmers have a 28 percent lower risk of early death and 41 percent lower risk of death due to heart disease and stroke than their non-swimming counterparts. And the benefits aren’t only physical. The same study found that swimming helps children to develop more quickly and can help older people stay mentally fit.
Adult swimming lessons
Christina Popma learnt to swim with her siblings at age four in the municipal pool in Zoeterwoude, and now owns Your Personal Swim Coach (YPSC), an national organisation that teaches adults how to swim. Her interest in teaching adults to swim was sparked while living in Kenya, where she was surprised to see that outside of the Netherlands many adults couldn’t swim, and some were even afraid of the water–a concept that seemed somewhat alien to Popma.
“I met many children and adults who did not dare to jump in the pool at all, which was a new phenomenon for me,” she says. “I didn’t realise that swimming, or water, could be threatening if you didn’t know how to swim.” Popma went on to help people in Kenya improve their swimming ability and enjoyed it so much that when she eventually moved back to the Netherlands, she enrolled to become a qualified swim coach and began teaching at an international swim school in her hometown, The Hague.
For many simply taking that initial plunge as an adult can be a scary experience, but Popma encourages those unsure to give it a try. “It is never too late to learn. Just bring a smile and show up,” she said. “We do realise that the first lesson is the biggest step. We have people on our list who keep postponing for all kinds of reasons. But at the point when they feel that they are ready, they are welcomed by our coaches with open arms.”
Learning to do it
There is no substitute for getting in the water and taking the plunge. While learners will often watch online swimming instruction videos before signing up, and these can be good for inspiration and understanding, nothing can replace being coached in the pool. Learning as an adult can be a hard journey but is ultimately worthwhile. For the coaches, too, teaching is an experience full of satisfaction, “I get so much joy out of encouraging people to join in,” says Popma. “And working with internationals also brought back good memories of my time in Kenya, where I was part of the expat crowd.” Although these days, the conditions for her students in her classes are more pleasant that when she learned as a child, “Lessons at 7am in an outdoor pool… Spartan conditions.”
Finding a school
For Popma, “the water sees no differences.” Swim schools are available nationally for people to learn, regardless of age or background, and offer classes for all ages and often women-only classes. While these are popular, many learners will also ask for a female coach, which Popma believes adds extra comfort to some learners during what can be a stressful time, so always facilitates. YPSC’s lessons in English make the experience as smooth as possible for non-Dutch speakers and they have smaller group classes for a personally-tailored experience. YPSC also offers trial lessons for a taster before making a commitment.
According to Popma, around 90 percent of try-out swimmers who come to her school continue until they become competent swimmers, while around five out of ten go on to achieve the official swimming diploma that the school offers as its final objective. “In general it takes ten months for the transformation into a swimmer,” Popma says. “In addition, our swimmers get connected in the group. I know of some who still get together weekly after meeting in one of our pools.”
Being in the water feels like an integral part of summer, particularly in the Netherlands. Being comfortable and safe around water, and being able to swim can open up a host of new experiences. While the health benefits of swimming can be utilised all year at your local pool, in summer trips to a river, the beach or on a boat take on a whole new meaning. “During the summer, I go back to Zoeterwoude to swim with my 78 year-old father,” says Popma. “We climb into the open water and cross lakes surrounded by grassland and cows. Although I can’t live without the smell of chlorine water, nothing beats those summer evening swims.”
About the author
Originally from Bath in the south of England, Huw Hughes is currently an editor for Amsterdam-based B2B fashion news platform FashionUnited. When he’s not working, Huw enjoys travelling and socialising, and has a weakness for good Dutch beer and good English tea.