While praise for the new pool safety legislation in France is merited, the issue of safety in the water extends beyond simply safeguarding your pool. Learning how to swim properly or further developing the skills you acquired from childhood can be a lifesaving investment. No one knows this better than Pierre Grüneberg, world-famous celebrity swimming instructor at the Grand Hotel du Cap Ferrat.
Born in Kerne, Germany in 1931, Pierre Grüneberg emigrated to Paris with his family in 1933.
How did he end up in Cap Ferrat? “At the age of 18, I passed my swimming coach exams and hitchhiked from Paris to the Riviera to find work, and ended up at the Negresco in Nice and the Carlton in Cannes. But they didn’t have pools and I didn’t want to spend my days waist deep in the sea. So I asked around about where there was a pool and was told about the Grand Hotel in Cap Ferrat. As luck would have it, I couldn’t catch a ride so I walked from Nice to Cap Ferrat. Looking down from the rocks,
I saw the pool and knew that this was the best place in the world. Of course, I didn’t have an appointment with the general manager, Mr Voyenne, and the concierge asked me to leave but I stayed and finally, after two hours, Mr Voyenne agreed to meet with me for a couple of minutes. He asked about my work experience as a swimming instructor to which I replied I had none but added that I could also speak German, English, Italian and some Spanish. He nodded assessing my age and stepped to the back room. He returned with a picture of four beautiful girls and asked, ‘What do you think of these girls?’ I knew without a doubt that however I answered that question would decide my fate. Nervous, I replied, ‘Listen, I came here to work not to chase girls.’ Within a week I had a signed contract. That was 1950 and I am still there, 54 years later.”
“I bring the water to the people”
But how does one become a “celebrity” swim instructor? “My method — ABC (Aquatic Breathing Control) — is well known and different. I concentrate on the breathing, not the stroke. Good swimmers can be out of breath after swimming a few laps, they cannot organise their stroke around their breath.
In other words, they use too much energy for their breathing. In fact, I start with a salad bowl with water — this helps people to feel comfortable and relax. As one of my favourite students, French actor Francis Veber put it, ‘Instead of putting people into the water, I bring the water to the people.’ And this method is effective.” When people, especially adults, take lessons they tend to feel insecure at the beginning. How does Pierre overcome this to get his student comfortable enough to even think of breathing and water? “I never give a lesson right away. I talk with the person, establish a rapport and then when I believe they are ready, we introduce the water.”
Pierre admits he is addicted to his job and the more challenging the student, the more incentive he has. He is not interested in the champs and top stars, although he has certainly taught more than a few: Charlie Chaplin (and his entire family), Picasso, Tina Turner, Elton John, Ralph Lauren, Paul and Stella McCartney.
Pierre claims that he never needs more than a week to teach someone how to swim. His students range from the very young to adults who have tried to swim with other instructors. A few years back, a Scotsman, terrified of water, rented a villa with a pool next to the hotel and Pierre taught him to swim in his own pool... in a week. Where does this fear stem from, I asked Pierre. “Trauma is the main reason. An incident that happened between the ages of five and ten, maybe they were pushed in or nearly drowned.”
“Be comfortable watching and breathing”
And what about swimming in the sea, is it the same as swimming in a pool? “Not at all. I had dinner some years back with six-time Olympic champion Kristin Otto. I was asking about her breathing techniques and she admitted that she never swam in the ocean, she was frightened. American actor Robin Williams — who is a wonderful guy by the way — is someone who is also nervous of the ocean because of sharks. Paul McCartney, just last summer, asked me to swim with him in the sea because of his fear of jellyfish.”
Any advice then for taking on the sea?
“If you are extremely hot, be careful of the temperature of the water as it can be too much of a shock to your body if the difference is severe. Particularly in the summer with the mistral, the sea temperature can drop dramatically. Also, use goggles (or a mask) to be comfortable watching and breathing and keep and eye out for jellyfish — their sting is nasty.”
For over fifty years, Pierre has spent his summers in Cap Ferrat and winters as a ski instructor in Courcheval. At 73, what is his secret? “Well, in the summer I swim one mile to the lighthouse every morning and in the winter I climb every week. Moderate food, no smoking, no drinking but most importantly, my pace of exercise is moderate.” Happily though I am able to report that he does occasionally indulge in a piece of chocolate!
Listening to Pierre reminisce over his half a century as a swimming instructor is fascinating. “Each time I teach someone to swim is memorable. But I have had one disappointment: I taught Charlie Chaplin’s daughter Victoria to swim at the age of five. She wrote me a sweet letter — as one can at five years old — claiming that ‘I will never love her as much as she loves me’. Years later, when she was twenty-two and working in the circus with her husband, I went to see the show. Afterwards, I mentioned that I was the man who taught her to swim to which she replied coldly, ‘Oh, did you?’ ”
Look for Pierre’s book The Grüneburg Method , in association with Speedo with whom he acts as a consultant.