Olympic Man, Floral Woman and unwashed bodies all help to fuel lane rage at the swimming pool

Financial Times, 17 September 2005

It is meant to be relaxing. You jump in the water, adjust your goggles and push off for a few lengths after a hard day at work. Everything’s going, well, swimmingly, and you’resettling in to a womb-like reverie when out of the blue an elbow makes contact with your eye socket, you’re swallowing water and your feet are trying in vain to find the bottom of the pool. Olympic Man has just shoved his way past you and the best you can do is doggy-paddle frantically to the end of the pool.

You move to another lane and get back into your stroke. But just as you’re settling in again, a terrifying shape looms up ahead. It’s big, it’s wearing a floral-pattern all-in-one and it’s moving at the speed of a school of plankton. You try to overtake, but Floral Woman is one step ahead of you, shifting imperceptibly right and pushing you into the wall. You switch sides, but so does she, so you pull back and resign yourself to marking time until you get to the end of the pool. Then, without warning, she stops, stands up and adjusts her swim cap. It’s enough to make your blood boil.

Britain’s public swimming pools have become dangerous places. Back in the day when Dr Who was played by Jon Pertwee and a sherbert fountain cost 4p, swimming was all about fun. Sure, there was No Diving, No Bombing and No Petting but beyond that almost anything went. And if you saw someone actually doing lengths, it was simply a sad case of Mark Spitz infatuation.

Then came fitness. Suddenly pools weren’t places you went to enjoy yourself, they were part of a “total fitness regime”. Instead of splashing around, people started doing sprints, timing themselves against the big clock on the wall and doing weird things with floats and training paddles.

And while all that might work in a carefully managed Olympic practice pool, down at the local pool it was a recipe for head-on collisions.

The answer, of course, was lanes. Dividing the pool into slow, medium and fast zones was meant to separate the minnows from the barracudas. But all too often it just crammed the chaos into a smaller space.

“Sharing a lane is all very well when everyone is swimming at the same pace,” says Ida Forster, a regular swimmer at her local pool, “but that rarely happens, so then all kinds of etiquette come into play.”

In fact, the etiquette kicks in the moment you step out of the changing rooms. Although slow, medium and fast should be pretty obvious to most people, even just choosing the right lane can be problematic. Unless you’re there at a quiet time, the fast lane is usually a no-no, because it is being churned into a foam by a scrum of Olympic Men who are all testosterone and no technique. The slow lane is out of the question, too. Not only is Floral Woman there, doing her snail’s-paceslalom, but there’s a man doing a strange sort of sideways kick you certainly don’t want to get in the way of, and someone who appears to be devoid of any sense of direction whatsoever. So you do what 90 per cent of the other pool users do and go for the middle.

This, of course, is packed with a bewildering range of speeds, strokes and abilities. You stand at the end, your brain like a fighter pilot’s, triangulating all the speeds and bearings, and push off where you think there is a handy gap. And that, of course, is just when the person in front of you decides to slow down.

“I’ve seen arguments break out in all three lanes,” says Renee Velasco, who has been a lifeguard for 10 years and now trains lifeguards at the YMCA in central London. “British people are very good at bottling things up, so when someone pushes past them the first time, they ignore it, the second time they start to get angry but say nothing, and the third time they hit the roof.”

The grown-up solution, of course, would simply be to ask the offending swimmer to be more considerate but that would go against the great collective self-delusion of swimming: we all know we have to share the pool but we like to pretend we don’t.

So when the lifeguard does step in and ask someone to change lane, the schadenfreude is almost edible. Unless that person is you, of course. “I was asked to move down from the fast lane to the medium lane,” says one user of a gym in the City, who prefers to remain anonymous. “It was so mortifying, I had to get out and go home.”

Lane hogs and slow coaches are one thing. But what do you do when the problem is rather moreintimate? Water is a great transmitter of smells, which means that anyone getting in the pool without showering first is likely to leave a potent slick of perfume or deodorant in their wake.

Anais Anais may be fine for lunch with a client. It’s not the nicest thing for the person behind you to find coating the back of their throat. And, while soap and deodorant are at least invisible, did you really forget you were covered in fake tan?

Swimming is probably the best of all sports in terms of physical and psychological fitness. But lane hogs, non-showerers, people who dobutterfly and all the other petty criminals of the pool are spoiling it for the rest of us. No wonder tempers arefraying at the deep end.