My inspiration for asking my adult students to write about their swimming experiences came from reading an article in the Wall Street Journal. The journalist had interviewed me for the piece on adults learning to swim, but nothing of real value that I had shared was conveyed in the final article, which you can find at this site. After hearing about some of the unbelievable challenges my mature students had faced that kept them out of the water for decades, I wanted to share their stories — as well what was important to look for when choosing an instructor and tips I have learned in the process.
Around the same time a new student, Shoney, came to me. She was 54 and wanted to learn how to swim. We struck a bargain: she would write a blog about her lessons in exchange for my teaching her how to swim. Her own description of this incredible process is more accurate and heartfelt than anything I could possibly describe. The introduction is below. To read her 13-part series, go to Shoney’s Story. Subsequent to that, I asked other adult students to share their swimming stories. To read about these courageous and inspiring adults I’ve worked with, go to Adult Swimmers’ Stories.
Swimming has been a rich and important part of my life and continues to give me great pleasure. I am honored to have inspired adults to, literally, take the plunge and learn how to swim, thereby experiencing this same gift.
My fear of deep water began with my mother. Her brother drowned when she was nine. One of my earliest memories is of my mother describing in detail the last time she saw her brother, how he fell from a boat, and what his body was like after three days in the river. At 89 she still frequently describes this event in detail, and I feel how deeply she was traumatized by it. She never learned to swim and refused to come to family outings near water. She just couldn’t watch. On hot summer days after working on the farm, my 12 siblings and I would go to a local lake — I often played in the water but was afraid that one of my brothers or some other boy would pull me under — a terrifying experience for me, not being able to breathe, not being able to reach the surface. I entered the water on-guard and never went in very deep.
One summer when I was about nine my mother signed up us younger kids for swim lessons. I asked her about this recently, and she said she remembered hauling us over to the swimming pool (but never staying to watch). It was a cold summer and we were always frozen and purple when she came to pick us up. I never got beyond sitting at the edge with my feet in the freezing water, watching the other kids and feeling embarrassed about not getting in.
When I entered high school we were told that to graduate we had to swim the length of the pool. The fear of this test hung over me for four years and yet I can’t remember if I ever took that test. It’s possible I thrashed around for half a length or showed them I could float.
When I was 21 I had an accident that escalated my fear of deep water. While cross-country skiing across a frozen river on a cold Wisconsin day, the ice cracked below me and I was completely submerged. While plunging deep down under the icy water I saw my own death announced in a newspaper: “21-Year-Old-Girl Drowns.” Fortunately I popped back up through the hole and was rescued by my adult Eagle Scout skiing buddy.
Throughout my life I longed to learn to swim. I signed up for group lessons a few times. The results were always the same. The instructor would rush the group through a series of fast verbal instructions and move on. I couldn’t coordinate my legs, arms, or breathing and was quickly left behind — discouraged, embarrassed, and feeling clumsier than ever. And no one helped me overcome my fear of deep water.
Throughout my life I have overcome many obstacles and fears and now at 55 I’m determined to learn to swim and to conquer my fear of deep water. At 89, I want to be one of those women I see who do lap and after lap, moving smoothly through the water. And so I begin my story of learning to swim with Beth.