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In the Media -  Swimming without Stress

Leap In: A Woman, Some Waves and the Will to Swim, by Alexandra Heminsley

Leap In: A Woman, Some Waves and the Will to Swim, by Alexandra Heminsley

Review by Anita Campbell

I somehow knew I would like Alexandra Heminsley’s new autobiographical work about wild swimming, ‘Leap In’.  The extent of this feeling grew over the three sittings it took to read it, with repetitions in my head of ‘I know what you mean, ’ ‘I know what you mean’, which may have eventually got on her nerves had she actually been with me. However, as I am also an open water swimmer who feels fear when my face goes under into the deep unknown, her process of unfolding and examining that fear was a joy to behold.  A cliché I know but I felt like I was there every step of the way. 

I knew about the importance of breath work and trusting the water from my friends and swimming teachers Ian and Cheryl Cross (Swimming Without Stress).  This book reinforced the life affirming importance of breath! Alexandra exposes her anguish and the growing realisation that she can overcome her fear and details the minutiae of practical concerns along the way, the comical wetsuit scene to name but one.  Highlighted too is the fact that life doesn’t just stop because one is working on one’s fears and she writes with poignancy about going through IVF (failing to stop myself saying I know what she means again!’).

Alexandra describes learning a new skill as an adult as like noticing and opening a door to find an extra room that you never knew you had. All I can say is that after reading ‘Leap In’  I was engaged in an enjoyable internet trail searching for wild swimming courses, Lake District swimming and new goggles!  Even if opening the door to open water swimming is not your thing, this journey inspires us to face the fears that stop us doing what we know we would love.  It just kick started me into what I already knew, life is short, get out there girl! 

Anita Campbell
Amateur runner and swimmer and constant journeyer to face my fears.

Member of the Almost Book Group which now has at least one other member keen to start wild swimming,  after reading Leap In. 

27-Feb-2017 /  written by Anita
Dive In! A holiday to turn your child into a water baby

Dive In! A holiday to turn your child into a water baby

By Hattie Garlick, Travel Writer, Daily Telegraph, July 16th, 2016

As a critic, it’s useful to travel with a companion who knows his own mind. This time, however, I had a feeling my son’s attitude could prove an obstacle: “I don’t want to go. I hate swimming. And if you make me, I just won’t get in the pool. At all.”

Based in west Wales, where the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park meets Cardigan Bay, Swimming Without Stress runs residential courses with a twist. The two luxury holiday cottage companies with which the group works both have private, indoor heated pools. Book in for a break at either and Ian Cross or his wife, Cheryl, will visit you daily for one-on-one swimming tuition, using an “intensive, but sensitive” method incorporating the posture-improving Alexander Technique.

Swimming, Ian told me, should be “like yoga in the water, an almost meditative experience, as good for the mind as it is for the body.” As a confident swimmer for whom the pool is a place to unwind, I couldn’t disagree. But I wasn’t so sure that a five-year-old, pool-phobic non-swimmer would see it the same way.

Ian, however, was confident that his approach would help Johnny. And so we headed to Wales, arriving late at night in the pitch dark. Opening the door to the Dairy, one of 10 properties on this rural site outside Cardigan, we found fresh cakes waiting on the table for the children and locally made mead for the adults. The place had all the relevant equipment for children, ample space for muddy boots, and an open-plan living space with a wood-burning stove and deep, comfy chairs.

At 9.30 the next morning, Andy, the owner, was ready to tour the farm with the children, feeding the goats, pigs, sheep, rabbits and guinea pigs. Splashing through the mud, the kids took in the football pitch, the mini adventure playground and the play barn, with air hockey and table tennis for teenagers and, for smaller children, play vehicles, slides and a sand pit.

Another thing revealed in the morning light was the pool complex. A tiny sprint across the gravel drive from our cottage, it was spotlessly clean and warm. There was a sauna, a small gym and a mini soft-play area. At 30ft, the pool is long enough for more accomplished swimmers to work on their strokes, while the shallow end is 3ft deep, ideal for small children.

When Ian suggested that I too might benefit from lessons, I signed up, aware that seeing me practise might help persuade Johnny. Sure enough, after watching my first half-hour session, he forgot his pledge and waded happily into the shallow end.

From the moment we learn to swim, Ian explained, most of us take gasping breaths and kick wildly to stay afloat. In fact, our first step should be to learn to trust the water and let it support us. If we can allow our heads to sink below the surface, blowing bubbles calmly, we are far less likely to panic.

This was one step too far for Johnny, who refused to submerge his head. Five lessons followed, in which Ian gently encouraged him first to submerge his mouth and blow bubbles, then his nose, too. By the end of the first session, Johnny trusted Ian so completely that he was floating on his back, his body completely relaxed, with just Ian’s hands gently supporting his neck.

In between lessons, we explored the countryside. The location is perfect: just 15 minutes from the jaw-dropping Poppit Sands beach; and the same to the awe-inspiring Cilgerran Castle. St Dogmaels and its cosy pub and restaurant, The Ferry Inn, are also worth a visit. The trouble was, the kids didn’t want to leave the pool – and nor did I, having developed an almost evangelical enthusiasm for swimming.

Breaststroke has always been my best stroke. Ian filmed me doing a length and showed me the footage. My technique looked good, but my neck was frozen as I held my head above the water. To correct this, I practised floating, letting go of all tension and allowing the water to support my body. It felt amazing – restorative, even – to let my head sink as I swam, then, as I raised my head to breathe, let my eyes lead the way so that my head was always in gentle motion.

From the start of our week-long break, Ian emphasised the benefits of learning together, as a family. While our lessons were separate, Johnny and I watched each other and my husband and daughter later joined us in the pool, testing what we’d learnt.

My lessons, like Johnny’s, were about getting back to basics: enjoying the support of the water and doing less. Passing on this ease in the water is one of the most valuable lessons we can give our children. Soon, he said, Johnny would be dunking his head under the water and swimming like a fish.

Sure enough, five minutes after we said goodbye to Ian, Johnny took off his armbands and jumped in. He tunnelled down below the water, then bobbed back up again, his head dripping water and with a huge grin on his face. Mission accomplished.

Also see:  Don't Pass It Up, Pass It On / Play Comes First But What Next?  /  Kick Kick Kick  /  360 Front Crawl /  Need for Speed /  Rotation Rotation Rotation  / In At The Deep End, Sink or Swim


18-Jul-2016 /  written by Ian Cross
1/3 Adults Not Competent in Water - BBC Radio Oxford Discussion on Learning to Swim

1/3 Adults Not Competent in Water - BBC Radio Oxford Discussion on Learning to Swim

Pupil Lynn (studio guest) talks about her learning to swim story and Ian discusses how our lessons can help people with fear of water.

According to a survey from the Swimming Teachers' Association (STA) over 1/3 adults in UK are not competent swimmers, or can't swim. 

One member of the public interviewed describes unsuccessful lessons, with the teacher on the side of the pool ''telling me to 'do this, do that' while I sank to the bottom of the pool!" 

Studio guest Lynn Mathieson tells her story of learning to swim, a significant part being a trip to Wales to overcome her fear of water. She could 'swim' a bit when she arrived for a course of 6 lessons but she was unable to float or glide. She didn't trust the water to support her and had never attempted to float on her back. 

Ian discusses the problem of teaching and learning to swim based on the misconception that you've got to learn what to 'do'.  He says the key is to learn to do nothing; just to enjoy the support of the water. Before the interview Al, the travel guy, said that learning to swim for him was like trying to stand in a hammock. Ian says you just have to learn to lie in the hammock, which is much easier. 

"Once you've learned to trust the water to support you, you can learn to do anything, as Lynn's shown." 

Also see: Radio London, Interview with Vanessa on why kids aren't learning to swim


07-Jun-2016 /  written by Ian Cross
Black Men Can't Swim?

Black Men Can't Swim?

Why can so few black people swim compared to the UK population as a whole?

All sports come easily to Matt except swimming… Is it true that “black men can’t swim”?
Role models?
Cultural – there is a need to change the message that black kids can’t swim.
None of Matt’s black friends can swim well.
Black US Gold medallist – Cullen Jones, part of relay team with Phelps, helps to counter the stereotype.
Sport England: Black Caribbean men much less likely to swim than population as a whole.

Matt wonders, Is it true that black men are not ‘made to swim’ physiologically?
Matt Bridge, Senior Lecturer in Coaching & Sports Science, University of Birmingham
Expert on human movement and human physiology.

In terms of buoyancy there are some differences and there is evidence to suggest that black men and women are less buoyant than white men and women.
Differences in bone mineral density (weight of bones)
Take average black man and average white man and you’re looking at 300grams difference in terms of skeletal mass.
But there are people in both groups that break the rule, you can get very buoyant black men and very heavy white men.
But generally black people are less buoyant than white people.
But a non buoyant person can still swim.
Lack of buoyancy is most significant at the learning phase. E.g black kid kicking with float, legs may sink. Once you take the floats away, it evens itself out.

Anecdotal note (Ian Cross, Swimming without Stress): black people learning to swim will often make up for lack of buoyancy through better direction through the water than their non-swimming white counterparts.
Also, regarding the discussion of legs sinking – it is the same problem as men’s legs compared to women’s legs. It doesn’t matter if the legs sink. A more significant measure of buoyancy is whether the head floats (some black men’s heads do float lower than white men’s). But if you use legs as a measure of buoyancy, you could just as easily say ‘men’ can’t swim.

Matt Bridge goes on to say that in the US marine corps, where non swimmers have to learn to swim, no one, black or white, has ever failed (quite stringent and vigorous) swimming test. This shows that social factors, confidence, motivation, peer group influences, are significant.

Richard Bailey, Professor of Sport and Education, School of Education, University of Birmingham, re learning sport:
It takes a lot of courage for an adult to learn to swim. Being in a group makes it more difficult. Recommends finding a specialist swimming teacher teaching on a 1:1 basis.

Matt goes to see teacher Gary Humphries (?) - He says childhood experiences can be a factor in being a non swimmer.
Says that Matt will float lower in the water rather than on the surface because he has little fat and high bone density and he will learn to use his buoyancy to great effect. “everyone can swim”. Explores relationship between height in water of head to flotation of legs.

Anecodotal note (Ian Cross, Swimming without Stress): Again, I would be more interested in how the head floats when he lets it go. I think there is too much emphasis on whether legs float when learning to swim.

Prof Richard Bailey - Socialization is significant – whether mother and father can swim, whether they take you swimming,etc - even though the idea that black people can't swim is nonsense. There is no physical reason why black people can’t swim but loads of sociological ones…. Friends and fear of failure, expectation of failure from friends v role models.

Matt tried to learn aged 9. RB says this is late because time for learning key motor skills, through deliberate play, is 3 – 7 years. By 9 – 10 years, need to be honing skills, ‘practice phase’ - likely to have missed out on the key skills 'learning through play' stage.

Also see Ian's blog piece January 2014 Who Thinks Black People Can't Swim?

Also see: Floating Foundations/  Floating is a Feeling / Control Freak? Can't Swim?  /  Sing When You're Winning  / Being Vertical For a Change  / On Your Back  / Rotation Rotation Rotation  / Sink or Swim? / Rescued, Learner Lost with Woggle at Leisure Centre   / To The Wall


16-May-2014 /  written by Ian Cross
Why Aren’t Children Learning To Swim?

Why Aren’t Children Learning To Swim?

The failings of traditional teaching & how our approach differs
Ian took part in a recent discussion on BBC Radio London. Vanessa Feltz was inviting people to chat about the BBC News Headline:

A third of children in England cannot swim by the time they leave primary school, according to research from the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA).

You can listen to the interview here.

The Kelloggs/ASA report suggests that 1 in 3 children don’t reach the target of being able to swim a 25 metre length, unaided, by the time they leave primary school. I don’t know if there are any such reports for previous generations, but judging by the number of adult non-swimmers, I would expect the ratio has actually improved considerably over the years. 

The danger of the goal.
Ian explained to Vanessa that this target 25m swim was not a good measure of whether a child is really able in the water because it puts all the emphasis on getting from A to B. It’s amazing what you’ll do when watched by teachers and all your peers. Doesn’t mean you’ll ever want to do it again though. He explained how a lot of adult learners tell him that they’d reached similar type goals in school but never did it again because they had never been comfortable in the water and so still considered themselves non-swimmers.

Steve Parry (Olympic medallist – butterfly) commented that children needed to be “formally taught”. Ian pointed out that a lot of children slip through the net in structured group lessons because it’s presumed that all kids like the water. Lessons can be a case of “do this with your legs and do this with yours arms”. The children who’re enjoying the water will be able to learn the strokes but the ones who aren’t yet comfortable with just being in the water, get further and further behind. Many of the adults we see often say “I was never taught this as a kid – It was all about getting across to the other side.” “This is the stuff that was missing.” (Stuff like being comfortable doing nothing, breathing out easily into the water, floating and regaining your feet).

“If they don’t learn at this age they never will.” 
Steve Parry said that. We know this isn’t true because we see, on a daily basis, adults really learning to love the water. 
But Ian partly agreed, pointing out that an important part of learning is through play – it’s when children can get a real feel for the water. Adult learners tend to want to miss this bit out and get on with the serious stroke stuff! Going for the end result rather than enjoying the process.

Teach a man to fish: 
As we all know, ‘it’s hard to teach your own’ and just because you can do it doesn’t mean you can teach it! But just playing in the water with your children can be the missing ingredient - provided you’re really comfortable in the water yourself. So instead of sitting back and watching the struggling school teachers get overheated on the side of a pool full of kids, let’s help them out a bit. Make sure you’re happy in the water yourself and pass it on from parent to child.

A link to the recording is here:


08-Jun-2012 /  written by Ian Cross
The Body Learning Alexander Technique Podcast

The Body Learning Alexander Technique Podcast

Using The Alexander Technique To Teach Swimming

The interview took place in May 2010 and focuses on helping non-swimmers learn to swim. 

Some of the topics discussed are..

...experiences training with Steven Shaw.

...the benefits of work in the water, in the horizontal plane,  from an Alexander Technique point of view.

...the problem of swimming with the head out of the water.

...the need for hands on guidance.

...our approach to the first lesson with a fearful non-swimmer.

...fear of putting the face in the water.

...misconceptions about breathing and floating.

...connection between head/ neck/ back relationship and breathing.

...how water exaggerates both tension patterns and our ability to release and expand out of them. 

...non-doing in the water as opposed to trying to 'do' something to make ourselves float.

...the importance for a non-swimmer of learning to regain the feet.

...getting a non-swimmer to be comfortable in the water

...being happy just to glide, not being too ambitious

...the usefulness of what Alexander called 'carrying out an activity against the habit of life'.

...learning through play and not rushing into formal strokes.

...whether Alexander Technique teachers without swimming expertise can help people in the water.

Listen to the interview here

 Or download it to listen offline here

For other topics, from horse-riding to rheumatoid arthritis,  see The Body Learning Podcast 


23-May-2010 /  written by Ian Cross