It’s a long way to come for swimming lessons, admittedly: across the Atlantic to Barbados, then on a small propeller plane to Union Island and, finally, a 10-minute boat crossing to Palm Island, one of the most southerly islands in St Vincent and the Grenadines. But then it’s not every day your instructor is Rebecca Adlington, the 24-year-old English swimmer who won two gold medals at the Beijing Olympic Games and two bronzes in London last year, and who until this month was holder of the 800m freestyle world record.
Nor is it every day your training pool is eight lanes of warm, roped-off, turquoise Caribbean Sea, with nary a Band-Aid drifting past to sully the experience. Tethered to the 135-acre private island’s jetty, the temporary pool bobs alongside the beach from which puzzled hermit crabs and equally perplexed sunbathers gaze on. It’s here on day one that Adlington – with her fiancé and fellow swimmer Harry Needs – greets us under a palm tree for our first pep talk.
Since retiring from competitive swimming earlier this year, Adlington, from Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, has done some commentary work for the BBC and is busy planning Becky Adlington Swim Stars, a learn-to-swim programme for children aged three to eight that will roll out across Britain next month.
She is also working with Virgin Holidays on Palm Island, each morning offering two-hour swimming sessions, aimed at all-comers, be they bob-along-in-the-slow-laners or triathletes.
I’m definitely in the former category. I love swimming but, since learning the front crawl 20 years ago, have never got any faster. Our group of eight is a mix of Britons and a lone Canadian from Ontario who admits he has never heard of Adlington but is happy to receive some tips from a pro all the same. We start in the resort’s leisure pool, where we are filmed on an iPad and timed, before moving to the sea pool, where a cluster of black sea urchins is a good incentive to keep going.
Adlington has no sport-star diva airs and graces (she tells us she keeps her medals in her knicker drawer). After reviewing the footage, she says I have a decent enough kick and arm action but I’m pulling too far back on my left side and my hands aren’t entering the water correctly. “Just think about cupping a little breast,” she giggles, “just a slight arch, fingers loosely together, not too stiff. Lift your elbow, nice bend.”
For the first couple of days we practise drills and technique in the sea, both freestyle and breaststroke, as well as pilates, soft-sand beach runs and fitness circuits sessions on land, led by 21-year-old Needs, who hopes to represent England at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and to be at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016.
It is all pleasantly uncompetitive, though, as you would hope on an island just two miles around and where most of the locals are large, laid-back iguanas. Although a private island, Palm is refreshingly unstuffy and definitely not another Mustique, which lies 30 miles to the north. Accommodation is in 41 comfortable beachfront bungalows or stilted villas, with no in-room WiFi or TV.
It’s a place to come to relax, read or hop on a bike for a cycle along sandy paths to a deserted beach on the opposite side. On Palm, 9pm is the new midnight, which suits me, because tomorrow is always another swimming day.
Although it is not strictly on the syllabus, we make a group decision to tackle a one-mile swim across the straight to Union Island. Needs leads the way but Adlington, who admits to being afraid of the sea, stays in one of the accompanying boats.
There’s something incredibly liberating about open-water swimming – to see the sea-floor dropping away to reveal the darkest of dark blues, to look back and see land diminishing behind you. It is all fairly calm for the first two-thirds of the crossing before a swell picks up and the group divides into two. Seeing that a few of us are lagging behind, Adlington puts on her goggles and dives in to encourage us. Not at all surreal, I think, to be between two islands in the Caribbean, swimming with an Olympic gold medallist, while I try to remember my high arm action and how to cup my hands. We arrive triumphantly on Union Island in one hour and 15 minutes.
On the final day Adlington times us again, and on my final lap I knock four seconds off my time for the same distance on day one, an impressive personal best.
The only problem now is that swimming back home at my local London pool just isn’t going to be the same without lopping the top off a coconut for post-training thirst quenching. And however well-meaning the instructors, I don’t think there are any Olympic gold medals lurking in their knicker drawers.
Will Hide was a guest of Virgin Holidays (www.virginholidays.co.uk). Virgin’s next Palm Island swimming course with Rebecca Adlington runs from May 4 to May 7 2014 and costs from £1,899 per person, including one week’s all-inclusive accommodation and scheduled flights with Virgin Atlantic from London