Stars get in the swim with legend Pierre

Any day now Pierre Gruneberg will return to his little apartment, just by the flower shop in the small town of Saint Jean Cap Ferrat in the south of France, and prepare for another summer in the swimming pool.

Gruneberg (73) who has held down a winter career as a ski guide and instructor for the past 50 years in Courcheval, will stow away his salopettes and unpack his swimming costume and dust down his selection of famous, conical straw hats.

More reliable than the first swallows or cherry blossom, Europe’s most celebrated and well-connected resident swimming instructor changing into his trunks and cranking up the rickety engine of his Citroen is a sure sign that summer is on its way.

During his 55 years at the Club Dauphin at the Grand Hotel du Cap Ferrat, the list of Gruneberg’s clientele has come to read like an international who’s who of the superannuated great and good.

And Gruneberg has an appropriately watery anecdote for each visiting star. Paul McCartney was wary of sharks during a sea swim, Ralph Lauren was anxious and had problems coordinating his breathing, but enjoyed a kind of epiphany in the water.

“It took quite a few lessons but as he [Lauren] swam he opened up to me as though he was letting light into his soul,” says Gruneberg.

“Swimming is a basic but beautiful thing … and a great leveller. All men are equal when they are wearing nothing but their swimming costumes.’‘

Many of Gruneberg’s students have left personal messages in his leather-bound journals.

“Me and the missus thank you for some laughs, some lessons and some good times at the Grand hotel,’’ wrote Paul McCartney after a holiday with his late wife Linda.

Picasso and Cocteau were more generous, donating sketches to show their appreciation. “I gave them swimming tips, they gave me drawings,’’ smiles Gruneberg.

“It’s funny because I was at a little Picasso exhibition in France the other day and saw a sketch of a goat just like the one he did for me. The gallery wanted â,¬30 000 for it.’‘

Gruneberg says the south of France has changed dramatically since he hitch-hiked there from Paris after qualifying as a swimming instructor back in 1949.

“Hardly anyone had their own swimming pool back in the 1950s when Cocteau and Picasso were around, so everyone used to come to the Grand Hotel’s pool to swim. It was very much a social thing in those days.’‘

The first lesson using the patented La Methode de Pierre Gruneberg of Aquatic Breath Control starts at a poolside table. With a salad bowl full of water.

Students are encouraged to take a deep breath and plunge their heads into the water, exhaling slowly through the mouth and nose.

“But singing, not blowing,’’ he says. “The nose, you see, is the chef l’orchestre of this symphony of breathing in the water.’’ At the end of each cycle, excess air is expelled with a face-contorting snort, requiring the swimmer to make a face like a rabbit. (Just how many euros would you give to see George Bush Snr making a face like a rabbit as his head emerged from a bowl of water?)

“Many years ago, I discovered that it wasn’t so much the stroke people had trouble with, but putting their heads underwater, opening their eyes and breathing was difficult for them,” Gruneberg explains.

Last summer, I watched Gruneberg teach my two daughters, Maddie (4) and Laurie (9). My youngest loved the silliness of the salad bowl. She had the confidence to start swimming unaided soon afterwards. Laurie could swim before she met the master but he showed her how to make her stroke look elegant and effortless.

“Swimming is the best exercise in the world,’’ says Gruneberg, who swims a mile every day, from the jetty at the Grand hotel out to the lighthouse and back. “It improves your endurance and helps you balance your life.

“I try to tell people that a couple of lengths of the pool is no good. To get the best friend on the water you must swim in the sea, for a long time at a slow, even pace.’’ — Â

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