Adult Learn to Swim — facing fears and having fun

The last time I took the Red Cross Adult Learn to Swim program was 17 years ago when I was 38. When I completed it, I still couldn't swim, but I did get a card saying I no longer had to have my parents present when I went into a pool, ha-ha.

My fondest memory of that class was watching some really obese ladies just lie right down on the water and float like it was the easiest thing in the world. Excess weight has its downside certainly, but these ladies were having a grand old time by effortlessly lying on the water in total peace. Good for them.

When I heard the Guilderland YMCA was doing a Community Adult Learn to Swim program I decided to sign up. If you don't know how to swim, like me, then you know there's a real fear of drowning involved anytime you're around water.

They say the only way to get over your fears is to face them, so here was my chance (again). I don't have enough body fat to float so easily like the large ladies did so I knew it was going to be hard work, but, what the hey, I'm game for anything.

Growing up in Brooklyn, we went to the beach a lot, but no one ever taught my brothers and me to swim. No one on my mother's side of the family swims; as for my father, I can remember watching him way, way out in the ocean at Rockaway Beach, with only his head visible bobbing up and down with the waves.

I guess he was too tired out from working all day, six days a week, and then the driving to the beach and carrying the umbrella, cooler, and everything else to bother teaching my brothers and me how to swim. A full day at the beach with three young boys is a lot of work for any family.

I had only two experiences in water growing up, and both were pretty bad.

Once, at a teenage pool party, I got thrown into the deep end. I remember thinking at first, "This is bad because the phone numbers for all the girls I know are in my wallet," and then thinking, "Hey, forget about the wallet, I can't swim!"

To get out of the pool, I had to flail around randomly until I locked onto a girl who thought I was trying to drown her.

Then, another time, at Rockaway Beach, I found myself standing in the ocean up to my neck and feeling a sinking feeling, pun intended, as the soft sand beneath my feet began to give way. At that point, while I'm surrounded by hundreds of people at the beach and looking OK, I'm feeling like I'm about to get pulled in and lost forever.

Somehow, by moving my arms, I was able to pull myself back to shore without having to scream for help like a pathetic loser. Very scary. 

Can you see why the Red Cross has a tough time teaching me to swim? I have very little experience in the water, and, what experience I do have, is terrible. Still, I was determined to try really hard this time. I mean, it's now or never. So here's how it went:

First lesson

As I'm standing by the pool at the Y in my swimming trunks, I'm trying to convince myself not to just turn around and leave. This is how it is when you're really nervous about something.

When the class started, I could barely hear what was going on — I had ear plugs in and there was music playing. Then I'm thinking, why am I the only one in the whole place with chest hair, to say nothing of back hair? Where is Burt Reynolds when you need him?

Soon, just like that, I was in the water. It's cold at first but, once you're in all the way, it's fine. Way back when I took the class the first time, I'd learned how to put my face in the water and blow bubbles. I found that just knowing how to do that made me a lot less anxious.

Then the teachers and volunteers tried to help me do the front and back floats. I'm not all muscle and bones, I do have some body fat, but my problem is I get so nervous I get stiff and sink easily.

They worked with me on this for a while, and then we did a drill with life jackets. For me, this drill was worth the price of the course in and of itself. I will never get on a boat again without a life jacket on.

The final drill was a tight group survival hug in the water as a body heat saving exercise; all I know is, since I was the only guy in the group, I enjoyed this exercise very much.

Second lesson

During the first lesson, there had been a lady who was a beginner too. At the start of the second lesson, I saw her by the pool in her bathing suit. Next thing you know, she was gone.

Again, if you're a swimmer, you probably don't understand the fear involved in just getting in the water when you don't know how to swim. So this lesson, I had two lady volunteer teachers all to myself.

They tried to help me with my floating, but I was still very nervous so I was basically just sinking, which was very frustrating. Then they had me try some rudimentary moving my arms and kicking, but I'm just really uncoordinated when it comes to swimming, since I've never done it before.

How frustrating it is to watch normal people doing something so apparently rudimentary as swimming when you don't have the first clue how to do it.

It's like when I teach someone how to ride a motorcycle — they get overwhelmed at first when trying to remember how to operate the throttle, clutch, and brakes using their hands and feet while trying to balance, steer, and stay in control.

You have to work at these kinds of things until you're no longer thinking about them, you're just doing them. At least there's no chance of drowning on a motorcycle! I was so frustrated with my lack of progress, I left after only 45 minutes of the scheduled hour.

Third lesson

This time, the other beginning student was back. It was great to see her conquer her fear by showing up again.

So now I had only one volunteer working with me almost the whole hour. I definitely got more comfortable in the water, but still had trouble doing the front and back floats. Even adding a little leg-kicking and arm-moving didn't help. I was still too nervous to just let it come naturally.

When I tried the front crawl again, I found I wasn't getting any forward motion from my legs. I've been working at a desk my whole life and, due to that, I have very poor ankle flexibility, so I have a hard time generating propulsion.

The good thing is, I was starting to feel less nervous, like there was a chance I may be starting to get it. The thing that makes it hard is watching how easily the volunteers and instructors swim. I mean, these ladies are all trim and fit, not a lot of extra body fat, yet they can just lie flat on their backs in the water and float all day long. Amazing.    

Fourth lesson

This time, I had the main instructor work with me almost the whole hour. She even had me put fins on my feet so I u feel what it's like to get a good push going. We worked on my stroke, but it's still a case of me thinking about it and not just doing it.

At least, after this lesson, I had the idea that, with more practice, I might someday be able to learn how to swim. Believe me, for someone like me who has never been comfortable in the water, that is quite something.

When the lesson was over, I was just about to head into the locker room when one of the lifeguards called me over to tell me how well I was doing. Can you believe that? She really made my day, let me tell you!

About this time, I started asking all my friends if they could swim. Those who can (which is most of them) honestly can't believe I'm managed to go this long without learning to swim.

The ones who could generally have been swimmers all their lives. They all told me to just relax and I'd get it in no time. The problem is, the only time I hear the word “relax” is once a year right before the doctor does something horrible to me.

I guess the more people who tell me they can swim, the better for me, because then I start to think, "If they can do it, I can do it." At least I hope so.

When I ask the swimmers for tips, most of them say they just do it. For example, if I show them the motion of the front crawl, or show them how I'm being taught to breath, they say they don't do it that way — each person seems to just do what works for them.

One guy told me to take a deep breath and hold it and then I'd be able to float, but the ladies who just lie on the water are breathing — they're not holding it in — and they float just fine.

For someone like me who works with precision machines like computers all day, all this swimming stuff just seems so nebulous. When you can't ride a bike, they give you training wheels, but the Red Cross doesn't recommend wearing any kind of floatation device lest you get overconfident. Makes sense but until — if ever — I start to make some progress it's just an uphill battle that never ends.

Fifth lesson

I went into this lesson very confident, but, for some reason, just like the other beginner did in week two, I felt like leaving even before starting. I mean, it was all I could do to force myself to go through with it.

The only reason I stayed was because I knew my wife would be extremely disappointed with me if I left, so I decided to stick it out, which of course was the right thing to do. I started out slowly but, by the end of the hour, I thought I had made good progress on floating.

They even told me during the lesson that I could consider myself Level II now, so I must have been doing something right.

The really big news is, I seem to have mastered the survival float. This is where you float prone (on your tummy), with your head just under the water, and come up for air occasionally. The fact that I can basically do this now means that I might actually be able to save myself from drowning if I have to.

This, as Fucillo would say, is huge. Being able to do the survival float — to know that you may actually be able to save yourself from dying in the water — is just fantastic.

Sixth lesson

This was the first lesson where I actually had some fun in the water. I had two volunteers work with me the whole time.

They threw three rings to the bottom of the pool and had me go down and get them. What blew me away was this — it's hard to go down to the bottom of the pool because the water pushes you back up.

This was the absolute first time in my life I've actually felt buoyant in water. Now I know why mobsters have to always put you in "cement shoes" when they bump you off and toss you in the ocean.

I still had trouble doing the back float. I simply cannot relax enough to just lie on the water like the ladies can. There is a male instructor there who, I'm told, only learned how to swim when he retired at 65 and now teaches. Even he can lie on his back in the water and just float, and he doesn't have any more body fat than I do.

I know objectively I should be able to do it, but I'm just not there yet. They did let me try treading water, though not in the deep end, and I seemed to be able to do that, which was great.

Anything that gets me feeling like I might be able to save myself from drowning is what I'm looking for, really. I still had trouble coordinating my arms and legs in any kind of proper swimming motion, but at least I'm to the point where I'm trying in a meaningful way.

Later that week, I looked at some swimming videos online. If you watch our Olympic swimmers like Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte and study them swimming, you can't help but notice the economy of motion they have. They are not flapping their arms and legs wildly like I tend to do; rather, they use powerful, efficient, dolphin-like motions that just power them through the water.

Now these guys, when they're training, practice like six hours a day, point being there is swimming and then there is truly great swimming. I'll never swim like these guys but just watching them is helpful in a way.

Seventh lesson

Had to skip this one. All my life, I've had ear infections and the first thing the doctors ask is, "Do you swim?" Of course I always say no.

Well, I came down with an ear infection — my ears felt like I had expanding balloons in them, my sinuses were all clogged up, and my head was in a fog. No way I could enjoy a swimming lesson like that.

I wore earplugs for all the lessons, so I don't think the water caused this infection; it's just something I'm predisposed to, unfortunately. I hated to skip it just when I was finally starting to have some fun in the water.

Eighth and final lesson

Would you believe I pulled a back muscle in the shower before the last swimming class? Welcome to being 55 years old.

Nonetheless, I had my best swim lesson by far, as I was able to do the back float a couple of times by myself and even made some semi-coordinated attempts at actual swimming. What a great way to end the class.

Afterwards, the instructors and many of the students went out to a well-deserved buffet lunch, with a fun time had by all. The YMCA really does the swimming program right.

I have to thank the YMCA for putting on this program for adults. For folks like me who somehow slipped through the cracks and never learned to swim it's truly a godsend — the water-safety information alone is worth the price of the course.

I especially need to thank the two volunteers who worked so closely with me throughout the course. Rita Vamos walks kind of slowly due to her age, but in the water she's like a swan, as elegant and graceful a swimmer as you will ever see.

Georgia Sullivan is one of the sweetest, most patient ladies I've ever met, and a fine swimmer as well. Both of these lovely ladies went out of their way to rid me of my fear of water. They got me to the point where I was actually having fun in the pool! Big thanks to all the volunteers and especially Rita and Georgia.

This brings up another great thing about the YMCA swimming program. Many of the volunteer instructors are retired folks. How great is it to see retirees being so actively involved in the community, sharing their expertise, and staying vibrant and active?

We need more of this in our community. Retirees should not be teaching only swimming but other things they've learned over the years, things like cooking and balancing checkbooks. What a great way to have our seniors stay involved by doing actual useful things for their friends and neighbors. I love it.

Swimming is a fun activity and an excellent exercise that I've never been able to take advantage of, but, thanks to the YMCA program and it's excellent volunteers, I'm well on my way to making swimming a vital part of my life. It's about time.


The YMCA Community Adult Learn to Swim Program will again be offered at the Guilderland Y on March 13, 2015. It will be eight weeks on Fridays between 9:30 and 10:30 a.m. The cost is $70 and is limited to the first 30 registrants. The Guilderland YMCA also has swimming lessons all year long for all levels, and you don't need to be a member (non-members pay a little more). Contact the YMCA for more information at 456-3634. I'm also told the YMCA team will be putting on a community access TV program about swimming; be sure to look for that as well.