I Learned To Swim Just 7 Weeks Before A Triathlon

Non-swimmer Sophie Levett took the plunge (sorry) and signed up for swimming lessons less than two months before breaststroking across a lake

Even though I grew up by the sea in Eastbourne, I never learned to swim. Instead I learned to swim just 7 weeks before a triathlon…

At primary school I was in the non-swimmers group where we played in the shallow end with floats. My parents aren’t confident swimmers, and I hated getting water on my face so I never had lessons outside school either.

I’m pretty sporty and had always wanted to do a triathlon

Not being able to swim stopped me from doing things with my friends, like messing around in the sea on holiday and playing pool games. I felt I was missing an important life skill, and then there was the obvious safety aspect of being helpless in water.

I decided to pull my finger out and get lessons when I was 24. I’m pretty sporty and had always wanted to do a triathlon, but not being able to swim was clearly going to be a problem. (I couldn’t ride a bike either, but that’s another story…)

When I was offered a place in the Jenson Button Triathlon in 2013, it was the kick up the bum I needed. I was going for the Super-Sprint triathlon distance: 400m swim, 9km bike ride and a 2.5km run. I had a goal to aim for – and just seven weeks to do it in! I had to learn to swim.

My brother-in-law is a swimming coach so I roped him in to giving me lessons. He started off by teaching me how to put on goggles and getting used to putting my head underwater. Then we progressed to going up and down the pool with a float, and practising breathing, before I finally learned to do it on my own.

Once I knew I was in control
I found it liberating

Not panicking about breathing in water was probably the hardest bit but I got used to being in the pool quite quickly, and once I knew I was in control I found it liberating.

I swam breaststroke as it came to me more naturally than front crawl, and I practised four to five times a week. Knowing I had the triathlon to aim for was a massive incentive not to quit.

The triathlon wasn’t in a pool, though – it was an open-water swim across a lake in Luton Hoo. I’d had one trial run in Hampstead Ponds to get used to swimming in a wetsuit. I hated it, but it was really buoyant so at least I couldn’t drown. But on the day of the race it was so hot that wetsuits were banned.

Sophie, second from the back, bricking it

I stood on the side of the lake trembling. The water looked so murky that I was worried about visibility, and not having the security of the wetsuit had thrown me. I was crying and saying “I can’t do it!” but my friend stayed with me, reassuring me, and once everyone else had set off, I got in the lake and swam.

I was so proud of myself for not coming last

Weeds were attaching themselves to my arms but I was ploughing on, just trying not to wig out. Before the swim I was worried I might need to be rescued but no, I made it all the way across and I even overtook someone! I was so proud of myself for not coming last when seven weeks earlier I couldn’t even swim.

Since the triathlon I swim regularly. I find it relaxing and I’m keen to improve. I’ve entered another triathlon and I’m training to swim 1.5km in the Swimathon in April. Last year I spent six months working in Dubai and I was finally able to go in the sea and the pool with my friends. I even went to a waterpark, which was a big achievement. I just wish I’d learned earlier.

Now Sophie (left) can swim, the boogie-boarding world’s her oyster

Swimming Coach John Wood Shares His Tips For Going From Flounderer To Phelps

  • “Learning to swim helps you feel comfortable and safe around water; even just walking along a beach or by the river will become a lot more enjoyable. You can have one-to-one sessions with a coach, or group lessons if you prefer to learn with others.”
  • “The best way to overcome fears is to spend time in the water and get used to the environment. This could start with something as simple as dangling your feet over the poolside. Once you’re in, it’s about being comfortable putting your face in, breathing, and learning to not hold onto the side.”
Just a casual swim in the ocean for John
  • “The biggest hurdle for most people is learning to relax. When you relax, floating becomes easier and your confidence increases.”
  • “Progression varies from person to person. Some will take to swimming like a (literal) fish to water, for others just learning to float can take a few sessions. Don’t worry, though – you will get there in the end.”


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