How I Learned to Swim
I sat on the bench in my bathing suit, shivering in spite of the steamy heat surrounding the YWCA pool. It was only water. I wasn’t five years old anymore, afraid to get my head wet. But I thought back over the swimming classes I’d tried and failed. The only way I knew how to get from one end of the pool to the other was to use a head-out-of-water breast stroke. It was time to face my fear.
I’ll tell you what brought me to this bench this day. I wanted a good workout on a lunch break. I used to be an athlete, a long distance runner. But now running was hard on my knees, so here I sat, knowing that the near zero gravity of water cushioned joints. During water aerobics, I’d watched another adult class swim like pros. “Are you going to compete?” I’d asked a member as she changed from Olympian back into street clothes. She thought that was funny. She told me that Julie taught them to swim like that, that Julie was a really good teacher and advised me to find out for myself. So here I sat, doubting it. Until Julie arrived and interrupted my thoughts.
The first thing she did was give us a kickboard and tell us to swim the length of the pool with very little kick, “Like swimming through a ring of fire.” She admonished me to take out more kick. “The kick is not going to be your source of power. You’ll just get tired.” When our kicks were mere flicks of our ankles and we weren’t panting anymore, we swam a front crawl to the end of the pool. Of course my feet went down as my head came up. I was gasping for air. “We’ll fix that,” she said calmly. Then she started our first drill. We didn’t kick much or stroke at all, but lay horizontally on our sides looking down at the bottom of the pool and taking a breath when we needed it. I could feel horizontal happen to my body by simply pressing down on the extended arm. At the end of the first lap it was clear that these classes would be different. This teacher would find an answer to everything by breaking swimming down into all its component parts. “The way I teach, you will find that swimming is going to be easier,”
Julie spoke in her matter-of-fact way. “If it feels like work, it’s wrong. If the form is right, you won’t have to work as hard.” I took that thought home and considered other areas of my life where I expended too much effort and wondered how the skills would apply.
In the lessons that followed, Julie showed us how to find the glide in each stroke. In the front crawl, a moment exists that holds the extension. In that brief piece of time, the swimmer gathers herself and comes again. Her arm under water harnesses the water and swooshes it past her body’s rotation, and then there was the glide again, the bit of rest. We practiced reducing our strokes per lap, getting more glide per stroke, thus more rest.
On my breast stroke, I was beating the men who were lap swimming beside me. “How?” I inquired of Julie who was life guarding.
“Your form is better. I taught you to look down, which makes you more aerodynamic,” she replied smugly, taking full credit.
“But they’ve been swimming for years. They flip underwater when they reverse direction at the end of a lap,” I persisted.
Julie told me in her level voice, “Watch them. Their rotation is poor. They kick too much. They aren’t horizontal. They are slowing themselves down.”
I pulled my goggles back on and thought about rotation as I practiced my front crawl. So she had taken out our kick, prevented us from reaching down with our swimming arm, and had gotten us to really roll our bodies in the water while maintaining a horizontal position, and she’d done it all with drills. It was working too.
Then I tried to learn the back stroke. Would I have to swallow the whole pool of water before I got it? Weeks of drills went by, and it hadn’t pulled together. One day in frustration, after trying another type of drill, I just blurted out, “Well, other people have done it, so it must be doable!” Something in the statement clicked. At that moment my fear was replaced by determination. I stopped fighting the water, the class and the fear, and reached back and simply floated. Then my arms started to move in easy windmills, up, up, up to flip over and back. When underwater, my elbow bent to harness that water and made it swoosh beside me as I rotated out of the way. It was a slow backstroke, lopsided, but all that would correct in time, and when I swallowed water, it was because my feet had dropped. I only had to spit the water out while extending into the stroke behind my head which lifted my feet and my whole torso back into that flat position which was the good form Julie taught. “Don’t kick so much,” I could hear her say faintly from the end of the pool. I smiled. Easy does it every time.
The thing I dreaded became the best part of a day: teaching me to learn, teaching me to trust the water, teaching me so much more than just swim strokes. All I needed to do was to look for the component parts that I could master.
In my imagination I pretended to be at an award ceremony where I was recipient. I was mounting the steps, extending my arms to receive the trophy, turning it over in my hands while thinking who I should thank. I imagined looking out over the sea of faces and telling the audience, “I have allowed fear to be my very good friend in the past. Much of my life has been about hesitation. Then a woman named Julie taught me to swim. For every mistake, Julie had a technique to fix it, a drill, the ‘proper form,’ to be followed by practice. I learned to swim. In so doing, I became ready to take risks that I had previously avoided. There is no price that can be put on that great education. I thank you, Julie, for your wonderful skill and generous use of it. Life, which can drown some, can also be supportive if you extend your arms out into it and rest your weight in the proper places.”