My husband started saying, “Let’s go to Belize. Let’s take a vacation.” All I could think was why? Would I enjoy that? I did go to Belize — but I didn’t go in the water.
I have wanted to learn to swim forever. I felt I was missing a piece of life. I didn’t fit in society, in the world. It seemed like everybody could swim but me. I started looking online. Maybe they would have adult swim lessons, but it was always groups — that wasn’t for me. Past instructors and, trust me, I tried everybody — every time I’d get there, it’d be “Okay, everybody, we’re going into the deep end.”
Everybody? Who? Not me, I’m not going down there. I’m not doing that.
I was even willing to go to an Arizona swim school that guarantees students will swim in five days. I thought I would do whatever it takes. Then I stumbled onto Beth on the Internet. Reading her bio, she’s such an athlete, I thought, “Oh, she doesn’t want to work with me.” But looking at the testimonials, I knew some of those people! I’ve been here my whole life, and it gave me kind of a licensure. “I’m just like you. I can do it too. You are no different than me.”
I called Beth but it took a while to get started, which was anxiety-provoking because I thought, I’ve already made this decision, don’t make me wait another second.
The Millennium Harvest House Pool? I’ve lived here fifty years and didn’t even know it was there. I was so nervous. “Here we go again.” I almost chickened out .
My first lesson, Beth said, “Let’s start with what you know.”
I said, “I don’t know anything.”
She said, “Let’s talk about that, surely you can blow bubbles.”
I said, “Kind of.”
We started with me sticking my face in the water and blowing bubbles. She could tell something was up.
Beth said, “It’s okay, you can cry.” So I did. She wanted to know why I was this way. I told her, when I was a kid, I had a brother who was five years older. He used to hold me under the water and wouldn’t let me up. There wasn’t an adult around. It was a public swimming pool. Everyone thought this was just a brother and sister playing in the water. He tortured me and terrified me to the point where I stopped going to the pool at a very young age. I stopped going into the water at all. It took years and years before I put my face in the water.
Instead of telling me not to be afraid, Beth said, “It’s okay to be afraid. You should be afraid if someone did that to you. It’s no wonder.”
That was a big turning point for me because Beth gave me permission to be afraid — I felt she would be there for me. She wouldn’t let anything happen. That first lesson she never took her hand off me. That’s all it took.
I don’t think anyone else in my life has really understood. My sister to this day can’t figure out why that caused me trauma. My mother never learned to swim but she won’t speak about it. My friends think I’m more of a land-lover because I didn’t grow up around lakes or ocean, but I grew up with a pool down the street.
When you tell someone that you don’t swim they think it’s by choice, or that you don’t swim like a super star. You’re not Phelps. The absolute terror around water, especially deep water — friends and family don’t get it.
After that first lesson I thought, I’ve got to go with this. I’ve been working with Beth every single week for about a year now. I can get in the water. I can swim now.
Beth worked with me in a deep pool over the summer — working on being comfortable in the deep water and understanding what it felt like. She took me to the wall and said, “Just let yourself drop down. You can hold onto the wall the whole time. I’m coming with you. I’m not going to leave you.” It was fine. There’s still fear because I haven’t learned everything. She knows that. I need to learn about treading water and what to do if you feel panicky in deep water — but I looked forward to every lesson in the deep pool. I looked forward to what I was going to do next, what could I do next? I’ve come a long way.
Practice was scary at first because I was alone. I was embarrassed. I felt like everybody was looking at the stupid old woman who couldn’t swim. I told the lifeguard, “I’m learning how to swim. I’ll be in that lane.” He said, “That’s cool. If you get scared, I’ll help you. You’ll be fine.” By talking about my fears, my embarrassment subsided. I had built this wall — thinking everyone will notice, that everyone is going to see that I’m a dork in the water. And no one cares, no one cares — they really don’t care!
This summer I was at the pool with Beth and ran into a doctor friend. She gave me a hug and wondered what I was doing. I said, “I take swim lessons.” She told me, “You know, I never learned to swim.” I asked, “Why don’t you learn?” Here was this accomplished doctor, who does this amazing surgery all day, and she said,” I always wanted to learn but it’s embarrassing now. I’m too old.” I said, “No, no, you’re not too old.”
If you can’t swim at least have a conversation with Beth. She’s a superstar swimmer so you might think she wouldn’t want to teach people who are glugging around in the water. But she wants to work with people like me. Beth gave me a gift that no one else has ever been able to give me.
I walk with my head higher now. Learning to swim is a huge sense of accomplishment — it means more to me than all those pieces of paper on my wall — to walk around that pool and not have an ounce of fear.
We are going to Belize again in January. This time I want to stick my face in the water and watch the little fishies and play with the starfish. In Belize there are miles and miles of shallow ocean. I can go a long way and still be in water where I can stand up. I wouldn’t even walk out in that water before. I wouldn’t even go tubing down Boulder Creek. I went tubing this summer — my husband and I had a blast. My husband said, “You are having so much fun. You are so much more relaxed since working with her. You are enjoying life more, you can enjoy so many more things now that you’ve done this.”
Dear Julie: Your water spirit early on told me your life would not be complete without learning to swim comfortably. I had never seen someone beam as BRIGHT as you did after every lesson! When we had to take an extended break from lessons due to my accident in 2010, I felt devastated. You were someone I definitely did not want to put on hold. Fortunately, with the help of my assistant, you continued to improve and now have a beautiful backstroke and freestyle. ~Beth