When I was six, I started swimming lessons at the pool and Mum has a photo of me being presented with a Learn to Swim certificate. I also took lessons with one of the schools I went to, an Islamic school on the corner of Greenacre Road and Banksia Avenue. It was just two streets away from the pool so we’d walk there in a line. I enjoyed those swimming lessons but I never quite got the breathing right. I’d have a go at swimming laps in the big pool and I’d think I was doing a really good job, flapping my arms over with my head out of the water.
My family also went to Sans Souci beach and to the Birrong pool near Bankstown, which was much more of a swimming complex than the Greenacre pool. One time, when I was 10, I went to the Auburn Swimming Centre. That pool first opened in 1959, a time when Auburn was a much less multicultural place. Auburn is 24 kilometres west of the centre of Sydney and just over seven kilometres from Greenacre, and since the 1980s it has been a popular suburb for people from many nations, especially when they first arrived in Australia.
When I went to the Auburn Swimming Centre, I remember thinking it was much more colourful than the Greenacre pool. At Auburn, the tiles around the 50-metre pool and the smaller indoor pool were oblong shapes in shades of red, orange, pale pink, steel grey, black, mint green, light blue and white. There were blocks of colour everywhere – on the change-room walls, on the seating and on the yellow grandstand by the Olympic-size pool. On the concrete area beside the pool were retro-style fixed umbrellas with seats in orange, blue and white.
The colourful design of the pool matched the lively atmosphere of the Sunday afternoon I spent there when it was only open to women. All of Mum’s friends and all the women we knew in our community – young, old and in-between – were there. It was so nice to have the outdoor pool just for women, which meant that everyone could wear normal swimmers. I had on my favourite blue rash top with floral sleeves and matching Lycra shorts, and most of the women wore one and two-pieces. It was an afternoon when everyone could let their hair down, literally. I remember watching the younger women take off their veils and noticing they dyed their hair, and seeing the older women’s grey hair. I wasn’t accustomed to seeing them often without their veils, so as a young girl I found it fascinating. It was a fun afternoon with all the different generations of women together – cooking a barbeque and sharing food, talking, laughing, swimming and relaxing in the water.
In my final years at primary school I continued swimming at the Greenacre pool, but once I started wearing the hijab in high school, swimming at pools became increasingly difficult for me. The burkini had been invented, but in my teenage years I thought it was ugly, and I refused to wear it. I struggled to find something I was comfortable wearing, and one time when I was at the pool at Olympic Park at Homebush, a lifeguard came up to me and said: “You are not supposed to be wearing that.” The top I had on wasn’t the correct Lycra material. I had that feeling of being policed and not being welcome at public pools. When swimming carnivals came around each year at my state girls’ high school, I didn’t know what to wear, so I stayed home and studied and I thought I was great for getting ahead.
Pools were out of sight, out of mind during high school, and when I was studying law at university and for the first few years I was working. Then in August 2016, just before the Rio Olympics, I heard of a Syrian swimmer with the same first name as me who was a member of the Refugee Olympic Team. Yusra Mardini’s heroic story sparked something in me, hearing how she jumped into cold water to lighten the load on an overcrowded boat of asylum seekers, then pushed the boat towards the Greek shore for several hours, and I started thinking about swimming and pools again.
Around this time at my work we were talking about wellbeing and dabbling in ideas for lunchtime activities and my director asked if anyone wanted to join him for a swim at North Sydney Pool. Initially I thought, “Really? at lunch?” But I decided to try it out and took the plunge and bought a burkini. Fortunately, there were a lot more fashionable styles by then and even the iconic brand Speedo was making one, which normalised it as a form of swimwear. So, after a number of years of not going to pools, one sunny lunchtime I joined my director and a few of our colleagues in my new burkini at the magnificent North Sydney Olympic Pool.
It’s so grand swimming there underneath the arch of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and when I got in the saltwater it was like being born again. I felt that moment of initial release, like on hot days back at the Greenacre pool, and being hugged by the coolness of the water. I felt so free, and it was wonderful having that time to relax and disconnect from work. I kept saying, “Wow,” to myself and thinking, This is what I have been missing out on. I watched people swimming laps and I tried to have a go but I was pretty much drowning. I realised I needed to go back to basics and learn to swim again.
I couldn’t return to lessons at my childhood pool at Greenacre because the council closed it down in 2016. It was such a shame because that pool was very central to the small community there and provided respite on those heatwave western Sydney days. It’s remained locked up since then and the only signs of life are hundreds of ibises that have taken residence at the pool. There’s a sign on the gate saying:
“This facility will remain closed until further notice due to structural issues with the pools. Alternate facilities are available less than five kilometres away at Birrong and Roselands.”
So instead I went to the Roselands pool, where they had adult lessons just for women on Sunday mornings. I did two lots of those lessons and when I finished I got a certificate, just like when I was six at the Greenacre pool. I realised I needed to keep practising regularly and so I decided to start a swimming group called Swim Sisters to inspire women from all backgrounds, walks of life, fitness levels, shapes and sizes to go for a swim. I organised and took part in weekly stroke correction classes run by my friend Fadila Chafic, and I finally mastered breathing and freestyle. Since then, my swimming has improved and I have reconnected with the Auburn pool where I had that wonderful experience of swimming with a community of women when I was 10.
It’s called the Ruth Everuss Aquatic Centre now after another inspiring woman, who at 16 was a silver medallist in a relay event at the 1960 Rome Olympics, and later taught swimming – including classes just for women – trained squads and managed the Auburn Swimming Centre. In 2017 the Centre was totally redeveloped, so it’s not quite as colourful as it was in 2000, but it has become a very welcoming place for Muslim women, with part of the renovation involving installing curtains in the indoor pool so that several nights a week women can have privacy when they swim. As well, every Sunday afternoon there are women-only swimming sessions and water safety classes. I have a season pass to the pool and each Wednesday night I join a group of women, many Muslim but some not, who take part in stroke correction and swimming lessons with my Swim Sisters group. On Wednesday nights we don’t have the whole pool like that day when I was 10, but we do have a lane and the same feeling of camaraderie as we all come together at the pool. Since giving birth to my son in March, I’m also at the pool for his Splish Splash babies’ water familiarisation class.
I’ve even returned to swimming at Olympic Park, where I was told more than 10 years ago that my swimwear wasn’t acceptable. Since 2017, I’ve been taking part in the MS 24-hour Swim-a-thon there, which is great fun, like being at a slumber party with all your friends. The second and third years I did it, it was Ramadan, but we managed because not everyone in our Swim Sisters team was Muslim. Some girls also felt comfortable to swim while they were fasting and I did the night shift just before it was time to stop eating at 4am.
Now I always have my swimmers, goggles and towel in my car so that wherever I am I can go for a swim. I always experience a special joy being immersed in the water at McIver’s Ladies Baths at Coogee, Australia’s last surviving women-only pool, where I had a relaxing swim before I went into labour with my first child. I am a strong believer in having some women-only spaces and it’s wonderful to go to McIver’s where there’s less testosterone and a calmer, non-competitive atmosphere.
When I turn up at pools in my black burkini in areas of Sydney where there aren’t many Muslim people, occasionally I get a few looks because they are not used to seeing Muslim women swimming. But I don’t pay attention to what others think any more and I don’t believe I am doing anything extraordinary. Just like everybody else, I am there to swim and most of the time people are very welcoming. I’ve come full circle from those carefree early childhood days at Greenacre pool and I’m an Aussie water baby again. Now I just have to do something about reopening the Greenacre pool.
This is an extract from The Memory Pool: Australian stories of summer, sun and swimming, written by Therese Spruhan and published by NewSouth Books at $29.99.