Two Newcastle pensioners have overcome their fear of water after more than 50 years

Best friends Val Watson and Sandra Davison have become sporting ambassadors after learning to swim for the first time

Sandra Davison and Val Watson
Sandra Davison and Val Watson

It's never too late to take up a sport. Health Reporter Craig Thompson meets two pensioners who swam to success after 50 years living in fear of the water.

Best friends for more than five decades, two Tyneside women have now become sports ambassadors for the swim school that has changed their lives.

Sandra Davison and Val Watson met at school aged 11, where they were never taught how to swim – and they couldn’t shake off their fears for the next half century.

But as the friends neared their milestone 65th birthdays they made a pact – that they would beat their demons and finally fulfil their life-long dream to swim.

After Sandra took the plunge first with Swim North East she sent a Christmas card to her friend announcing her success.

This was just the motivation Val needed and 12 months later she had joined her friend in the deep end.

Sandra Davison and Val Watson aged 17
Sandra Davison and Val Watson aged 17

And now the 67-year-olds are ambassadors for the Tyneside and Teesside swim schools.

Sandra, who lives in Chapel Park, Newcastle, said: “When you have wanted to do something for so long and then you are on your way to achieving it, it just feels great. Swimming was like a brick wall but I have broken through it. It is a super, super feeling and now I love swimming. I feel like a different person.

“After my first lesson, I was absolutely buzzing. I told everyone about it, and contacted Val. We had both tried over the years with lessons but never stuck at it, we just didn’t have the confidence and it got worse the longer we left it.

“I had it in my head for over 60 years that I couldn’t swim so I didn’t.

“Then as 65 was nearing something changed; I had to do it. When I contacted Swim North East and met my instructor Matt it felt so different - I felt like I trusted him. Having that one to one time and his undivided attention made all the difference. When I got into the water he got in the water with me.”

Sandra, who now swims every week with Val at Fenham Pool in Newcastle where the pair learned to swim, says she has a whole new lease of life – even her holidays with husband Ian have changed.

She added: “We have always gone on beach holidays and I have never been able to join my husband in the pool or sea. Now I can jump into the water and swim side by side with him.”

Sandra and Val’s role will involve helping new swimming instructors to teach and understand adult swimmers, as well as being contacts for new adult swimmers who have any questions or concerns about their lessons.

Sandra Davison, Matt Thompson and Val Watson
Sandra Davison, Matt Thompson and Val Watson

Val, who lives in Newburn, Newcastle, says if it hadn’t been for Sandra she may never have overcome her fear and gone on to discover the joy of swimming.

The mother-of-two and grandmother-of-four missed out on swimming with both her children and grandchildren, but is making up for it now.

She said: “Sandra was so determined that she was going to do it and when she told me about her swimming lessons I thought “if you can do it, so can I.”

“It had got to the point that I was over 60, couldn’t swim and assumed it would never happen, I had no confidence. I really wanted to do it but wasn’t sure I could.

“I missed out so much on not being able to swim. When I had my two sons my husband Brian taught them how to swim as I sat in the cafe watching. I was terrified that something would happen and I didn’t want my boys to pick up my fear so I left them to it.

“Then later in life when my husband and I were on holiday in Corfu there was a beautiful cove and he was swimming in it and I realised again that I was missing out.”

When Val joined her friend Sandra in the pool she says it was not easy, and often had battles with herself just to get into the water.

The retired children’s outreach worker added: “The first few weeks I just watched Sandra, and told Matt that I wasn’t promising anything. It took a long time for me to learn to swim, and even longer to acknowledge that I could swim.

“But one day as I was moving around freely in the deep end it hit me – I was swimming. I have been swimming with my grandchildren ever since and it is wonderful. I was having lessons alongside my nine-year-old granddaughter and she would encourage me and spur me on.”

Instructor Matt Thompson says that Sandra and Val, who swim up to 200m every week at Fenham Pool, are true inspirations and are the perfect pick to encourage others to take the plunge.

He added: “I’m chuffed to bits with the pair of them. It is a huge achievement – they have gone for almost 65 years being non-swimmers and over time their fear has got more ingrained. “It is quite rare that people will stick to swimming lessons at that age and see it right through and they have done it. I am filled with admiration for their courage and determination.

“Now as ambassadors they can help other adults to overcome their fear of swimming; they are both so bubbly and infectious they are the perfect pair to motivate others.”

The Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) says that one in five adults in England are unable to swim, and 2.3 million adults want to learn, but Matt says it’s not as easy as just diving in.

He added: “People are often embarrassed, even ashamed of the fact that they can’t swim, and many non-swimmers are reluctant to admit it. Unfortunately children in 2015 are still leaving school unable to swim a length of the pool – breeding the reluctant adult non-swimmers of the future.”

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