x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Overcoming a fear and becoming a swimmer in the desert

How the UAE helped one teenager overcome her fear of water, confused swimming coach notwithstanding.

This country has helped me to overcome a personal challenge: I was terrified of water when I first came to the UAE. I hated the stuff with a vengeance, owing to disastrous earlier episodes of swimming lessons when I usually thrashed about and ended up gulping massive, chlorinated mouthfuls between strokes.

Even getting a toe wet in a swimming pool had me squealing and legging it for dear life. That meant, of course, that I was signed up for swimming lessons as soon as my family moved here - at the Jumeirah Beach hotel.

My coach, Igor, was the subject of constant fascination. An "Igor" was meant to be the scheming villain in movies because, as everyone knows, all the scheming Russian villains in films are called Igor. But Igor the swimming coach was a disappointment because he in no way fitted my mental image of a satisfactory villain. He wasn't even Russian, for heaven's sake, he was from Kazakhstan.

So while Igor didn't quite live up to my expectations as an acceptable assassin, he more than made up for it with his incessant shouting and uncommonly loud voice. For one, he insisted on using a range of variations on my name, calling me everything except what it is supposed to sound like.

"The emphasis is on the Lav," I'd clarify. "It doesn't rhyme with lasagne." And a tad predictably, much to my chagrin, Igor began shrieking things like "Lasagne! Do the tumbleturn again!"

This was quickly taken up by the rest of the swimming class, and had, by the end of a couple of months, evolved into "Cal", which was a short form of Calzone because one of them liked calzone better than lasagne. I suppose I was asking for it.

What I did manage, however, was to learn to swim. The warm-ups were always the most enjoyable part of the lesson at first, mainly because we didn't have to enter the water. They involved a jog all the way to the Marina restaurant, which is a circular building plonked a little way out in the sea, with a thin strip of land, surrounded by crab-infested rocks. There was nothing we liked better than scrambling on to the rocks, just because we weren't allowed there and had been told to keep strictly to the road.

In the pool itself, Igor was a terror to be kept appeased at all costs. "Arms straight! Arms straight!" he would bend down and tap a swimmer sharply on the head. "What should your arms be like?" The unfortunate swimmer would surface, shake the water from his or her ears and stare blankly.

"Well, you can do six extra lengths with your arms straight."

Somehow, the victim always seemed to be me, or at least that's what it felt like.

It was all worth it in the end, as attested by the fair number of medals and trophies I've amassed.

The writer is a 16-year-old student in Dubai