There’s no getting away from it. I am vertically challenged.
On a good day, barefoot and bolt-upright, I stand 168cm. So my ambition to be a world-class rugby lineout jumper somehow got lost in the post.
Most experts on social behaviour will tell you that being short has few, if any, advantages. The tall guy usually gets the job, the girl, and the promotion before the runt. Pipsqueaks have to weather quips such as ‘See you shortly,” with regular monotony.
Even if you do make it … er, big, you still have to wear built-up shoes — just ask Tom Cruise.
But there is one advantage; you don’t get back-ache.
Except no one told my back that.
I suffer from nagging mechanical back pain. In other words, it’s not spinal spurs, slipped discs, fused vertebrae or anything like that. It’s muscular, either from a schoolboy rugby injury when I was spear-tackled at full speed, or more likely from decades of sitting hunched over typewriters banging out words for a living.
I have tried everything from naff Pilates to deep-muscle massage, chiropractors and physios. I gulped down Ibuprofen like peanuts, until I was told that would affect my liver, which already has its hands full with brewski intake.
The final straw was when I had to give up my lifelong addiction to jogging as my back went into spasm after a couple of kays.
But at last I have found something that works; swimming.
For me, it’s the new wonder drug. I can do 100 lengths at the gym’s indoor pool down the road without a twinge. Even better, afterwards I can bend down and tie my shoelaces without feeling I’m on a torture rack.
But the biggest side effect is not my brand-new back. It’s that I’m the local Michael Phelps at the pool.
Before Phelps sues me — and with good reason — let me explain this bizarre anomaly. I swim during the day when the only other pool-users are pensioners. In the evening, the ripped, genuine Phelps-clones come and do a thousand lengths of butterfly in one nano-second flat, but during day sessions the key stroke is doggy-paddle that would make a dog blush.
I grew up on the beach and did a lot of paddle-ski surfing, so am an adequate if not stylish swimmer. I have got myself out of sucking riptides, crippling bluebottle stings, and could dive deep spearfishing on remote reefs.
So when I leap into the pool and whip up a storm of kicking feet and swirling arms, doggy-paddlers think they are watching a maestro. Anywhere else, of course, I’d be laughed out of the water.
To put this in perspective, the average ‘pool’ workout of my co-users involves half an hour in the Jacuzzi, then five minutes of swim-splashing in the pool followed by a sauna. If not totally exhausted, they might also have a Turkish steam bath. I recently watched two women do exactly that, then remark ‘we gave it a good tonk today’, as they walked to the showers. When I told my wife that story, she was keen to sign up as she hates exercise more than anyone I know. I told her she was too thin.
One of the pensioners asked me where I learnt to swim and I replied, “On the beaches of Mozambique.” After that, I was not just the village Mark Spitz, but also an ‘exotic’. She didn’t exactly say that, but I saw her glancing at me while conferring with two friends, who obviously had no idea where Mozambique was.
Compare that street-cred to my running days when pram-pushers and pensioners on Zimmer frames regularly overtook me on hills as my back seized. Thanks to swimming, my bruised ego has been restored.
There are some drawbacks, of course. Due to the size of the patrons, the pool can only accommodate a handful of people doing lengths at any given time. Also, doggy-paddlers seem to have little sense of direction while splashing away. This means you have to be on full alert for head-on collisions.
But hey, if they think I’m Mark Spitz from Mozambique, that’s a small price to pay.