Postcard from . . . the Côte d’Azur: the 88-year-old swim coach

https://www.ft.com/content/8f25d386-91e2-11e9-8ff4-699df1c62544

An early rise has its rewards. The Côte d’Azur’s speedboats and floating gin palaces are still asleep as I slip into a deserted Prussian blue sea. My relaxed crawl takes me away from the tip of the Cap Ferrat peninsula, its jagged rocks dashed by a deceptively muscular swell.

As recommended by Pierre Gruneberg, swim coach at the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat, I breathe to my right, catching regular glimpses of its belle époque mansion, neighboured by some of Europe’s priciest villas.

After 500 metres, directly beneath the octagonal, white-stoned lighthouse, I turn back, switching my breathing to the left. I’m now fighting the current flowing into the bay of Villefranche, recalling Gruneberg’s advice to remain calm and exhale deeply. After the tiring 30-minute swim, I’m glad to reach dry land.

Gruneberg’s tips are born of long experience. Apart from 1951 and 1952, when national service intervened, he has swum the same route each summer morning for 69 years. “It’s an essential start to my day,” he says, as we gaze across to Cap d’Antibes. “I relax, watch the fish and enjoy each breath. I feel part of the natural world.”

As another summer season starts at the Club Dauphin — the Grand-Hôtel’s seawater pool, terrace and seafront restaurant — 88-year-old Gruneberg remains an energetic presence. Lithe, agile and charming, he has recently returned to the Riviera after his annual winter stint as a ski guide in Courchevel.

For the hotel’s well-heeled guests he provides a living link with the golden age of the postwar Côte d’Azur. The young lifeguard mingled with the likes of Picasso, Jean Cocteau (“an incredibly interesting, funny man”) and Somerset Maugham, who “stuttered a lot but was very good company”. He taught swimming to the children of David Niven, Charlie Chaplin and Jean-Paul Belmondo.

Over the decades he has known, coached or simply swum with a glamorous Cap Ferrat crowd, whose evolution reflected the changing nature of fame and wealth. Alongside Hollywood’s A-list, including Robert Redford and Robin Williams (Gruneberg swam alongside the latter, quelling his anxiety about sharks), there were rock stars from Bono to Tina Turner and Paul McCartney, who was afraid of jellyfish. “I had to swim circles around him in case there were any nearby.”

The lifeguard improved Ralph Lauren’s breathing technique, helped Domenico Dolce conquer a terror of water and got music mogul Jimmy Iovine into a pool for the first time in 55 years. He chatted to a young guest more excited by his internet start-up than perfecting his breaststroke. “I didn’t understand a word,” he recalls. ‘Only later did I realise it was Mark Zuckerberg.’

The essential part of Gruneberg’s tuition occurs away from the pool. Using a salad bowl full of water, a technique he devised in 1953, he firstly gets the pupil to inhale and exhale correctly. “Breathing badly in the water is like a car without petrol,” he explains. “Everything tenses.”

Today’s guinea pig is my wife, who has a fear of breathing out underwater. In the poolside restaurant, surrounded by other guests in pastel linens, she firstly strengthens her breath hold, sucking onto a ping pong ball through a length of garden hose. Before long, goggles on, she is face down in the salad bowl, singing aloud while exhaling through her mouth and then nose. That afternoon she swims the crawl, exhaling in the water, for the first time in her life. Gruneberg assures me he has never failed a pupil.

Many of these encounters are immortalised through sketches, messages and photographs in what Gruneberg calls his “Golden Book”. I find Picasso’s drawing of a dove and resting goat, Cocteau’s fish and Chaplin’s self-portrait. A cartoon by Cabu, later killed in the Charlie Hebdo attack, shows a Russian head forced into a salad bowl.

The pages mark the relentless passage of time. Long gone are the days when Club Dauphin’s main clients were French families holidaying nearby; when a younger, blonder Gruneberg taught water skiing in the pool by pulling pupils grasping a rope. With the hotel and its magnificent grounds run by Four Seasons since 2015, today’s club is a more luxurious, sedate, international affair.

Will Gruneberg, who still teaches four days a week, ever retire? “No, I’ll probably take my last breath on the ski slope or in the Mediterranean. I’ve instructed a friend to throw my ashes into the sea. Depending on the current they’ll either float to the lighthouse or back — my final swim.”

 

Details

Ian Belcher was a guest of the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat. Double rooms cost from €350 per night. Swimming lessons with Pierre Gruneberg cost €115 per hour