Stephen McGinty: Hats off to daddy of the dip

FROM Bono and Macca to Bush snr and Onassis, Pierre Gruneberg has 
been teaching the rich and famous to swim for 60 years and his methods are used around the world, writes Stephen McGinty

AT two o’clock today Pierre Gruneberg, a tall, tanned Frenchmen, will set off from the rocks below the Grand Hotel Du Cap, on his daily swim to the lighthouse on the rocky promontory of Cap Ferrat and back again, as he does each and every day of his long, hot summers in the Cote d’Azur.

He is not the fastest swimmer in the water, preferring slow steady strokes to a frantic sprint, which gives him time, as he explains, to enjoy the sea life that darts and dives below his steady course. On the afternoon we were scheduled to meet, the wind had whipped up the waters of the Mediterranean into foaming peaks and Pierre had not yet returned from his daily routine. Looking out at the dark blue waters, which only hours earlier were a calm cobalt blue, made me think that the prospect of powering through to the distant headland was less than enticing.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

It made me think of an old interview in which Gruneberg described his daily ritual. “I love to walk down the stairs, to discover each day a different sea that is sometimes rough, sometimes smooth. The line of the horizon is semi-circular, so it’s like standing at the end of a boat, you have the view that the earth is round. People feel it but they don’t realise it. It’s like a scene of the beginning and the end of the world.”

My concern was that, this time, it might genuinely be the “end of the world” for a figure I had long wished to meet and who remains one of the most famous swimming instructors in the world. Last year Pierre Gruneberg celebrated his 60th year as the swimming instructor at the Grand Hotel Du Cap, a classic historical hotel once visited by F Scott Fitzgerald, which for decades has been beloved by movie stars and is now cherished, and most easily affordable, by billionaires and Russian oligarchs.

As a teenager with a facility for languages young Pierre had dreamed of becoming an interpreter for the newly formed United Nations. As he had witnessed, as a child, the destruction caused by the Second World War, he had an admiration for any organisation whose lofty ambition was to bind countries together in a degree of harmony.

To pay for studies he qualified as a swimming instructor in 1949 and hitch-hiked to the Cote d’Azur, but as he did not wish to spend all day in the sea, he sought out one of the only two hotels on the coast, at the time that had a pool. The Grand Hotel’s pool had been built in 1939 by an Italian spy posing as a pool architect, who did rather an impressive job high on a rocky promontory above the Mediterranean. (Today it is reached by a glass funicular railway.)

At the time Gruneberg waited two hours for a chance to speak to the hotel manager, who gave him a five-minute interview, part of which involved showing him a photograph of a recent beauty pageant by the pool. Asked what he thought of the beautiful girls in their bathing costumes, he replied that he had no opinion, that he would be there to work. It was the right answer, designed to weed out any Cabana boy lotharios and as Gruneberg later explained: “It got me the job.” As the hotel had a swimming instructor, the manager agreed to give him a call should a vacancy open and when it did he immediately travelled south from Paris. At the end of the first year, Gruneberg realised that his vocation lay in teaching swimming rather than in translating languages.

The last 60 years are documented in his “Livre d’Or” or “Golden Book”, a scrapbook in which his clients and friends have posted pictures, scribbled greetings and, in the case of Cocteau and Picasso who were regular guests at the hotel, priceless sketches. Paul McCartney wrote of a visit with his late wife Linda: “Me and the missus thank you for some laughs, some lessons and some good times at the Grand Hotel.” There is a letter from Somerset Maugham, the English novelist who coined the famous description of the Cote d’Azur as “a sunny place for shady people”. Perhaps most touching of all is a short note from Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel peace prize winner, who was 70-years-old and terrified of the water, when Gruneberg finally conquered his fear and introduced him to the timeless delights of swimming. “All rivers go to the sea, but it is because of you, dear Pierre, that I now manage to swim in it,” wrote Wiesel.

When Pierre finally joins me on the new bar terrace of Club Dauphin, the hotel’s pool and restaurant complex, which offers the finest natural vista on the Cote d’Azur, nothing but sea, blue sky, and tree-clad rocks, I’m startled at his apparent youth. Although 82-years-old, he has the confident gait and manner of a man 30 years younger, which he puts down to regular exercise and a careful diet. People, he insists, eat far too much, while he prefers a simple salad Nicoise each evening. Over the years, he has taught the likes of Ralph Lauren , Liza Minelli, Aristotle Onassis, David Niven, Shirley Bassey, George Bush Snr, Isabelle Adjani, Princess Soraya of Iran, the wife of the former Shah of Persia, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Bono.

He puts his success over the years with even the most hydrophobic of pupils down to his salad bowl, for each student begins, not by going into the water, but by having the water brought to them. He has patented La Methode de Pierre Gruneberg of Aquatic Breath Control, which he believes is as simple as its initials: ABC. This begins not in the pool, but sitting at a table in front of a large clear plastic salad bowl half filled with water. First, students are taught how to take their pulse and count how many breathes they take in a minute in order for them to become aware of their breathing. Students then take a deep breath and place their face into the water and then exhale slowly through the mouth and nose. He encourages them to sing and not blow and then at the end of the exercise, any excess air is expelled by contorting your face into that of a rabbit and clearing your nasal passages by snorting. The exercise is repeated again and again, with Gruneberg monitoring through the clear-sided bowls until the student becomes increasingly confident and less fearful.

Gruneberg’s focus is on eliminating the fear of the water, which is exacerbated when it goes up people’s noses and so the first hour involves teaching people to breath out underwater but in a safe, controlled and exceptionally dry environment. They are then taught to hold their breath underwater for as long as they can with many amazed at the results of what feels like ten seconds becoming, in reality, a minute. Only later do pupils move into the pool where they practice floating face down before being taught different strokes.

Today, his copyright system is being used all over the world and he remains a spirited evangelist for the transformative effects of swimming. After reading in the newspapers that Ethiopian and Russian immigrants to Israel were twice as likely to drown as any of the other citizens, he persuaded his wealthy Jewish friends to fund swimming lessons at the University of Tel Aviv which he flew over, at his own expense, to co-ordinate. Over the years, he has made many wealthy friends, one of whom insisted he was too smart to remain a swimming instructor and who offered to fund his education in any given field, but slaying primal fears among those terrified of water and bestowing the gift of boyancy remains his life’s work.

“The wonderful thing about being in this incredible place, which is blessed by God, is that I have met the whole world here, without even moving,” he says

So for those of you who have been inspired by the athletic exploits in the Olympic pool this week but have never learned to swim, there is hope and dedicated, understanding instructors such as Pierre Gruneberg out there waiting to guide you into the big blue.

Although he worked as a physiotherapist for the French Olympic swimming team in 1956, Pierre believes the best swimming is to be practiced in the sea, not in a pool and so was surprised to discover that today so many Olympic swimmers rarely take a dip in the ocean.

As the Grand Hotel du Cap was previously seasonal, Pierre spends the winters as a skiing instructor at Courcheval, but for as long as there is breath in his body, and a degree of agility in his bones, he will spend his summers as the old man at the pool dispensing hope and joy and nuggets of pithy wisdom: “Swimming is a basic but beautiful thing,” he explains with a chuckle. “All men are equal when they are wearing nothing but their swimming costumes.”