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Ageing, ageism, photography, stories

7th February 2017

Pierre Gruneberg, 85

As well as being a qualified physiotherapist and Courchevel’s oldest ski instructor, Pierre Gruneberg is also a swimming instructor at the Four Seasons Cap Ferrat, where he has taught the likes of Tina Turner, Paul McCartney and Robin Williams how to perfect their front crawl. Bolder photographed him on location at the hotel.

“I’ve been working as a swimming instructor at this hotel for the past 66 years. For me, it’s the best retirement home in the world! It was totally different back when I started; there was just a small snack bar and 99% of the clientele were French – they used to come from the nearby villas. Now, of course, the local crowd all have their own swimming pools and the clientele is more international.

I am blessed to still be able to do everything I enjoy.

I am best known for being the ‘salad bowl teacher.’ The reason people can’t swim is mostly about breathing. Once you learn how to breathe correctly, you know how to swim. My method is easy. I use a salad bowl filled with water and for one hour, I teach my students how to breathe without even getting into the pool. I used to give up to 40 lessons a day, but now it’s more like two or three. People come here to lie on chairs and eat more than to swim.

I have my bathing suit here in Cap Ferrat, my tie in Paris and my skis in Courchevel – I split my time between the three. After I became a ski instructor, I decide to study physiotherapy in Paris, I thought it would be a good idea in case I broke a bone or injured myself while skiing. As it turned out, I was a very good student as I found it terribly interesting. I even ended up being the physio for the French Olympic team in Melbourne back in 1956!

My mother gave me some of my energy – after all, she is the one who helped us survive. We were born in Germany but she moved the family to France in 1933 as we were Jewish. My father had just bought a new house and was more of an optimist so he decided to stay but eventually joined us when it became more dangerous. All of the family members who remained in Germany ended up at Auschwitz. It was a very dark period. Although I’ve had difficult times because of the war, I’ve largely been very happy, particularly in love.

What have I learnt? Be tolerant and don’t judge people too quickly.

I’ve been married twice, and I met both my wives when I taught them how to swim. My first wife, a well-known French classical actress, passed away in 1991 after 30 years of happy marriage. I was a widower for ten years and then I met my second wife while I was teaching in England on a promotion for the hotel. We dated for ten years and then got married five years ago when I was 80. She is twenty years younger than me but age does not exist for us. We are just totally in love, which is the only secret to a happy marriage. Love is enough. It balances your life.

I am blessed to still be able to do everything I enjoy – when the Four Seasons took over the hotel two years ago I thought they might get rid of me, and I would have understood perfectly. But they saw that I was something of a legend here, so here I am. I do my best to keep fit. Every morning, I swim in the sea to the lighthouse and back [about a mile] and then I start working around 11am. I don’t drink, I never have, and I always eat my special ‘Salade de Pierre,’ which is packed with healthy ingredients. I don’t eat meat at all anymore.

I really love people, I suppose I am interested in life. When I take the underground, I want to know the story of everyone sitting in my carriage! I find myself wanting to ask questions.

What have I learnt? Be tolerant and don’t judge people too quickly.

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