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The David Wilkie problem

Last week, a few of the national papers picked up on a swimming related story that’s relevant to anyone who swims in public sessions. David Wilkie allegedly resigned his membership of a Virgin Active health club in Berkshire after being told off for swimming too fast.

Wilkie is one of Britain’s most successful swimmers, with his finest hour being a gold medal in the 1976 Montreal Olympics where he set a world record time of 2:15.11 for 200m breaststroke. The record stood for six years. He is now 62 and still swims. I don’t know how fast, but I suspect it’s quicker than your average plodder. He can probably swim breaststroke faster than most people swim front crawl.

In this post-truth world of fake news, I’m not going to pretend I have the full facts in this case. But the story once again raises the issue of how swimming pools struggle to manage their facilities to provide swimmers with a wide range of abilities, aspirations and expectations the best possible experience. The fact that “lane rage” in pools exists, suggests that currently they don’t do a very good job of it.

To be fair, many leisure operators have improved on the provision of 25 years ago, when I first started trying to do any serious swimming outside of a club environment. Back then, I couldn’t find a pool that provided any lanes for training. As a result I developed a bad habit of swimming with my head up as that was the only way to avoid a collision. Now at least most pools have allocated times for ‘lap swimming’ and some have lane ropes almost permanently installed with dedicated fast, medium and slow lanes. A few even leave the turn flags in place, which is great if you ever want to practise backstroke.

Still, even with this, there are conflicts and disputes between swimmers, as the David Wilkie incident shows. A lot of this, I suspect, comes down to a mismatch in the perceptions and understandings between those who have swum in a club training environment and those that never have.

For example, one report says Wilkie bumped a swimmer in an adjoining lane, and that second swimmer complained to the pool manager. Now, if you’ve ever swum in a crowded club session, you will know that contact with other swimmers, either in your own lane or in the next lane, is relatively common. If another swimmer grabs your backside, your working assumption is that it’s an accident rather than a sexual assault. If someone touches your foot you understand it to mean: “excuse me, I’ve caught up with you, please let me past at the next turn.” Someone who hasn’t had regular experience of swimming in a club environment is likely to be much less understanding.

Another difference is the perception of speed. Club swimmers become very skilled at judging their speed against those around them. They will immediately recognise if someone is swimming faster or slower than they are and (usually) adjust accordingly by not starting a length directly in front of a faster swimmer or pushing off on the feet of a slower one.

People without club experience are also frequently puzzled by club-trained swimmers’ strange behaviours. They dash off a few lengths, then stop for a few seconds (usually breathing heavily) before racing off again. They say incomprehensible things like, “I’m going on the next red top”. If they didn’t keep stopping, surely they could swim nice and steadily like any normal person.

Finally, experienced club swimmers don’t realise how intimidating they are to regular swimmers, especially if they turn up en masse. Even when taking it easy, a club-trained swimmer is likely to be far faster than a leisure swimmer. Their confidence in the water and ease in the pool environment can easily be mistaken for arrogance. Club swimmers also frequently assume that everyone should follow their rules of pool etiquette, regardless that these are rarely understood or written down.

Some swimmers have very strong opinions on the best way to manage lanes in swimming pools. Unfortunately, those strong opinions are not always in agreement. I don’t know if being told off for swimming too fast was the real reason why David Wilkie gave up his gym membership but I do know that managing swimming lanes for people with a wide range of abilities is very difficult. Rather than expecting pool managers or even lifeguards to solve the David Wilkie problem (i.e. preventing fast swimmers from getting frustrated with slower ones, or slower ones getting angry with faster ones), it would help if all swimmers could occasionally try to imagine what it’s like using the lane from someone else’s perspective. A smile, an apology or a ‘thank-you’ will keep everything running more smoothly.