It is early in the morning and I meet Simone in the entrance hall of the swimming pool. He is seven years old but looks younger. Simone is a partially sighted child. He is excited, intrigued and, at the same time, slightly cautious and a little wary. His mother explains to me that he can only really see shadows; his visual field is extremely limited. This is his first time in a swimming pool.
I take him by the hand and explain what the swimming pool looks like. I make him touch the edge of the pool and then walk around it with him; he trusts my hands and my voice and eventually enters the water… in the end he tells me that he feels like a little fish when he is in the water.
Then Luke arrives, who was left hemiplegic after an operation on his brain; he has managed to overcome his anger and fear and just like Simon he now enjoys the freedom that only a swimming pool can give him.
These are just two of the many stories I come across every day in the pool, and what they have in common is the joy of experiencing the water as a gratifying form of new-found independence.
It is worth pointing out that swimming is the most versatile and popular of all the sports practised by disabled athletes, with a growing number of participants.
The reasons can be traced back to the beneficial effects water has on all of us: immersing ourselves in water at temperatures of over 30° makes it easier for our blood to circulate, helps relax our muscles and encourages the physically challenged to move around in the water. This allows them to improve their posture and move more naturally.
Entering a pool and swimming around allows the physically challenged to leave behind their crutches, supports and wheelchairs. Being free from all these aids and enjoying greater mobility gives them a sense of freedom and euphoria.
The best results are actually psycho-social: swimming increases their self-confidence, makes them more independent and allows them to reassess their own potential, thereby enhancing their ability to learn, understand and concentrate and encouraging them to make friends with fellow swimmers and the staff who help them.
Sometimes disabled people avoid physical activity out of fear, shame or because they are scared of comparisons; this leads to a decline in mental health and worsening of their physical handicap.
These are the people I am writing this article for, inviting them to visit their nearest pool and possibly sign up for swimming lessons.
The initial approach to swimming is usually based on an individual relationship between the instructor and pupil.
After getting used to the water, the next step depends on the kind of disability they have (physical, mental or sensorial), their age and whether or not the instructor needs to be constantly with them in the pool: sometimes they can actually join a small group of similarly challenged people before going on, at a more advanced stage, to set up their own training group.
In other instances, a one-to-one relationship with the instructor may be the best way ahead.
Physically challenged people with minor handicaps or certain kinds of sensorial disability can sometimes even join groups of able-bodied swimmers.
Everybody can enjoy the water without necessarily having to learn all four strokes; sometimes people just need to be given the chance to get in the water and enjoy how it feels.