Champion swimmer Mark Foster has put his name to a new way to teach us all to swim – and reveals to Mark Kebble the role Millfield School played in his career
Mark Foster’s professional swimming career lasted for over three decades – taking in World, European and Commonwealth medals along the way – so it’s unsurprising that he’s very passionate about teaching future generations to be better in the pool. ‘Everybody should have the opportunity to learn to swim and by teaching a child to swim, you are also giving them a life skill – something that could potentially save their lives,’ he says when I caught up with him ahead of a TV appearance. ‘I represented Britain for 33 years at senior level and was fortunate enough to learn to swim at five – everybody should have that opportunity.’
Describing a lack of swimming pools around the country as one issue, he also makes a point of access to teaching, which explains why he was more than happy to become a part of Swimming Nature. Founded by Eduardo Ferre over 20 years ago, it is the largest independent provider of swimming tuition in the UK (there are now more than 100 instructors involved with it). The programmes offered range from Swimming Nature for Babies (up to three years of age) through to The Mark Foster Programme for over 16s, which aims to help swimmers reach peak performance and remain injury free – and they are able to arrange for lessons to take place at a pool near you.
I was fortunate enough to see Eduardo in action when he took my nephew, Dylan, for a lesson. Dylan is eight and it’s clear that the many group sessions he enjoys on a weekly basis do not have the necessary resources to rectify problems in his technique. Eduardo firstly put Dylan at ease with a spot of fun involving the latter’s swimming cap, before asking him about his favourite stroke. With that established, Eduardo spent the next 30 minutes working on breathing technique, pushing off from the wall, and how to use the arms and legs to get the optimum out of Dylan’s back stroke. I was startled by how much he got across in such a short space of time.
Mark is only too aware of the benefits of such attention to detail. ‘I was fortunate at 13 to get a sports scholarship at Millfield School,’ he says. ‘My family couldn’t afford to send me there, so this enabled me to not only get an education, but to be able to swim around a school environment and timetable. I used to train when I was at home, but my mum would have to take me there and wait for me, whereas Millfield enabled everything to be easier. I did my schoolwork, but could spend more time on my swimming.’
I mention how Millfield’s facilities today are simply stunning. ‘They were fantastic even 30 years ago now,’ Mark points out. ‘But it wasn’t just about the facilities. I was surrounded by like-minded people. I had people training with me who I went to school with, so every session became a competition!’
Talking about Dylan’s lesson, Mark is not surprised in the slightest that Eduardo managed to achieve so much in 30 minutes. A friend of his for some time, Eduardo was the reason that Mark was more than happy to put his name to Swimming Nature. Referencing him learning to swim at five, is that the optimum age? ‘Generally, the earlier you learn to swim, the better it is,’ Mark answers. ‘As we get older, we put blocks in our heads – if you can’t do something, you become more conscious of it, more afraid. When you are young, you have no fear. The earlier you get children into a pool, the earlier they become more aware of their body and their movements. They become more relaxed and learn quicker. Water is an alien environment and the more time you spend in it, the better you will become.’
Mark admits that part of the reason he had such longevity in his career was to search for that elusive Olympic medal, but there’s also something else that drove him on – and is at the heart of what Swimming Nature is all about. ‘The main thing for me was finding something that I loved doing. Ultimately, if you are having fun, you will learn more and become a better swimmer.’
To find out more about Swimming Nature and how an instructor can come to a pool near you, visit swimmingnature.com