Once a week, I swim at my favorite community center pool and the other three days I swim at my health club. When I first decided to learn how to swim two years ago, I went to that community pool right before my lessons started to begin to familiarize myself with the world of swimming — something I knew absolutely nothing about. When you can’t swim, you don’t exactly spend your time hanging out at pools. In fact, you avoid them. Well, at least I did and I live in the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” (Minnesota) to boot — a double whammy of self-inflicted water avoidance.
That particular day I went to the pool during open swim which meant a lifeguard was on duty. I remember getting in the pool and having no idea what to do. I didn’t know how to float on my back or put my head underwater. I tried a little doggie paddle (I even did that badly) and generally just hung out in the water reconfirming I had no swimming skill whatsoever. None. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Clearly the 16-year-old lifeguard could see that as well as she eyed me as a potential rescue. (As if!) Embarrassing.
In a moment of inspiration (or desperation), I thought maybe we were born with some kind of innate swimming skill that I had somehow overlooked all these years, but after several attempts of “letting nature do its thing” in the water, I quickly realized we do, indeed, have to be taught how to swim. That stunt earned me an even higher level of scrutiny from the lifeguard. And so I left the pool more ready than ever to learn. (SIDE NOTE: The idea [myth] that you can just throw a child into the water and they will “figure out how to swim” is ridiculously naïve. Many adults who were treated that way as a child never did learn how to swim and developed a fear of water as a result. Formal swim lessons exist for a reason!)
But back to my story at the community pool. I absolutely hated having no ability to safely (or productively) be in the water. I was deeply frustrated by that and wondered if that pool would ever stop feeling so completely foreign to me. What’s that line for on the bottom of the pool or the “+” on the wall? How many swim strokes are there? Which stroke was I going to be taught? Why are there flags above the pool? Do I have to wear a swim cap? I couldn’t conceive what it was like to be a swimmer because that goal, at that moment, felt as if it were a million miles away. Mentally I had lived in the land of NonSwimmerstan for 40 years. What was it like on the other side in Swimmerland? Could I really, finally get there — to become one of THEM?
Fast forward to today where I am now the proud recipient of 9 months of swim lessons and a year and a half of lap swimming. Recently, when I was at that community pool for my weekly Sunday swim, I stopped for a minute and reflected on just how far I had come. It was time to acknowledge that the journey had been long and hard, but oh so absolutely, fantastically worth it! Looking at me now you would never guess that I haven’t been a swimmer my whole life. I’ve even had a few people ask me if I swam competitively in high school with my backstroke. That’s funny, but a wonderful compliment! (And yes, my backstroke is THAT good. Who knew!)
I now swim during lap swim (no lifeguards) and switch back and forth between all four strokes (although butterfly is still physically challenging for me — I’m working on it!). The strange thing is … now that I am a good swimmer, I find it really difficult to remember what it was like to feel so utterly useless (helpless?) in that pool. Now I don’t know how NOT to swim. That doesn’t really make sense to me because the beginning was excruciatingly hard; how can my 40 years of non-swimming have faded so quickly? But here’s the thing about that initial embarrassment and frustration. You can either allow it to stop you (and you can quit) or, like me, you can use it to push yourself through the learning process. Decide if you will let it help or hinder you. Better yet, decide that Swimmerland isn’t such an unobtainable destination after all.
Learning is a lifelong process that applies to absolutely every subject and skill in life. “Learning to swim and overcoming that fear made me realize that I could do anything,” said Algernon Kelley in a recent learn-to-swim article in The New York Times. Learning something you perceive as impossible or difficult, once achieved, will open up a whole new world of opportunity for you. And that’s a mighty powerful payoff in the game of life. What are you waiting for? Swimmerland is a whole lot closer than you think. Come on over, the water is great here!
For more of my perspective on learning how to swim as an adult, read my full blog on the Swimmunity Wordpress site.