These days, summer smells like the scent of star jasmine, like dirt in the air before a storm rolls in. But growing up, summer was associated with dread, the sum of a series of tiny humiliations. Like the time I swallowed mouthfuls of water as I tried and failed to swim freestyle. Or the casual indifference of high-school PE instructors. Or the time I was scooped out of the deep end by a boy in Year Seven at the annual school carnival, despite the fact that I was in the kickboard relay. Nothing sums up how unnatural I’ve always felt in the water as much as the chemical tang of chlorine.
The children of immigrants tend to be painfully conscious that they’re different. To me, these differences are encapsulated by the way my Australian-born friends dive joyfully into swimming pools, the way they propel themselves headfirst into the ocean unafraid that the surf will engulf them. In a country whose version of youth is the endless summer beach party, where the national consciousness is steeped in the coastline described in Tim Winton novels, how does our ability to navigate the water shape the sense that we fit in?
The children of immigrants tend to be painfully conscious that they’re different. To me, these differences are encapsulated by the way my Australian-born friends dive joyfully into swimming pools
Nadia Johnson, 28, grew up in the Middle East and moved to Australia as a teenager. Johnson, whose background is South Asian, says that she doesn’t connect with the role swimming plays in Australian culture — especially during the warmer months.
“[At school] we had swimming lessons once a week and I didn’t take naturally to it,” she tells SBS. “Someone saying ‘alright, get in the water, see how long you float for’ didn’t work — I needed a lot of support. Now that it’s summer, I see my friends taking photos in public pools on Instagram. I don’t feel like I’m missing out but it’s this phenomenon that I’m just not part of.”
Tandi Kuwana, 38, grew up in Zimbabwe and has lived in Western Australia for the past decade. She says her anxieties about swimming stemmed from living in a landlocked country, where access to water safety resources was a privilege.
“[In Zimbabwe], there were few swimming pools and at one point, I remember trying to swim, because most of my friends could,” recalls Kuwana, who says that her reluctance to learn to swim once she arrived in Australia was compounded by the logistics of entering the water with her hair in traditional braids. “But the one time I was in the deep end, I started sinking so I quickly went back to shallow water. After that, I was scared.”
Trudy Micaleff is the area manager at Melbourne’s Dandenong Oasis YMCA, a facility with a program that includes specialised swimming lessons for adults from CALD backgrounds. The lessons focus on learning the basics and teaching new Australians how to be comfortable in the water.
Now that it’s summer, I see my friends taking photos in public pools on Instagram. I don’t feel like I’m missing out but it’s this phenomenon that I’m just not part of.
“The most common fear is “I’m going to drown,” which can cause some panic in participants — they may become stiff and not want to put their head in the water or stand up,” she tells SBS, adding that the program also creates pathways for CALD lifeguards. “These anxieties are greater in adults but participants overcome their fear of the water by building trust with their swimming teacher and in their own abilities. One participant, a 27-year-old Sri Lankan called Baki discovered a passion for swimming. He’s now employed as a lifeguard.”
In Australia, the national message around water safety is critical — especially given that 291 people drowned in waterways around the country last year, according to a 2017 report by the Royal Life Saving Society Australia. But so often this push to refocus on water skills overlooks the cultural dimensions of navigating the water, the sense that swimming is less birthright than it is a body of hard-won knowledge, accumulated slowly — and sometimes painfully — over time.
Still, there’s time to reverse this narrative.
“When my baby was one and I was still scared of the waves, that moment changed me,” says Kuwani. “One summer, my husband and brother took me to the pool every weekend and taught me to swim. But now I’m interested in taking lessons as well.”
Readers can find out more about specialised swimming lessons here and may be eligible for subsided lessons through the YMCA charity Open Doors.
The new four-part drama series On The Ropes exploring the world of women's boxing premieres on SBS on November 28.