Learning to Swim

One of those ads for health care coverage came on TV recently, and it transported me right back to my childhood.

Perhaps you’ve seen it — a beefy, bearded adult man has “waited too long” and is taking swimming lessons with half a dozen or so cheerful youngsters.

He looks miserable, and I feel his pain.

Fear of the Water runs w-a-a-y back in my family tree — my grandfather, my mom, and others too numerous to count.

I was no different. Growing up in land-locked Illinois, I didn’t feel any compulsion to spend ridiculous amounts of time in the water (other than bathing, of course).

I mean, if God had wanted me to swim, He’d have given me fins, right?

But my dad, who grew up on a river, thought otherwise. Swimming, he said, might save my life some day, should I ever be foolish enough to go boating or something.

So one summer, a handful of us kids signed up for Red Cross swimming lessons. Dutifully, we lined up on the concrete bank of our local pool, shivering in still-cold June weather, while our high school-aged instructors — bundled in blankets, sweatshirts, and towels — postponed their inevitable entrance into icy waters.

We students weren’t so lucky.

Once dunked (and still shivering), we were taught to stick our faces into the chlorine and blow bubbles; to hold our breath and descend for plastic toys, and to float on our backs.


Have you ever seen a skinny kid floating? No, only kids with some heft to them are able to float; the rest of us sink in the midsection but manage to stick our appendages out of the water enough to pretend to float.

By the end of the session, we were tested on our ability to dive into deep water, swim to a certain marker, and return to the bank. Those who succeeded got a little card with their name on it, telling the world they were swimmers. Those who didn’t? Well, they had to repeat the class.

Somehow, I managed to succeed, through sheer grit.

But I didn’t like it.

And I’ll never forget the sight of another skinny kid, shivering on the bank at testing time, afraid to dive in. That is, until one of the instructors got tired of waiting and gave him a push!

24 thoughts on “Learning to Swim

  1. That is an awful way to learn to swim! I agree that learning to swim is an important life skill, but it doesn’t have to be an awful experience. If you are afraid it’s not a personal failing. someone needs to work with you that emphasizes with your fear. It might take more time, but so what. Cole recently taught a friend to swim before they left for their trip to Hawaii. I told Cole if he scared the friend or let him drown he was in big trouble. I’m not sure what happened but after about 4 lessons the friend could dog paddle himself out of trouble and didn’t hate the water – more important he was alive to tell the story.
    No I have never seen a skinny kid float. I guess your grit served you well, tho, and you had the card to prove it. I laughed a bit, sorry.

    • It’s okay that you laughed at my expense — I’d have laughed, too, if it hadn’t been so painful. Bad enough being afraid of the water; worse, having to immerse myself when it was ICY water!

      Where was Cole when I needed a sympathetic swimming instructor?? You’re right — I’d have done better with someone who at least joined me in the COLD, rather than huddling under warm layers and making me freeze.

  2. Never had swimming lessons…learned on my own when I was about four or five and fell into the river, ha! At least, I learned to doggie paddle!

    • I can still see that poor skinny kid shivering in the cold and trying to get up enough nerve to go in head first! Me? I’d have been horrified at being shoved into the water before I was ready.

  3. Debbie, this post brought back so many childhood memories for me and learning to swim! I was always very intrigue about water and learning to swim, but I also had a tremendous fear about it. My family belonged to a country club when I was a kid, so during the summer months, my mother would take us to the pool so that we could get used to the water. I was very hesitant to go into the deep end, but I was also very stubborn and didn’t like being afraid. I remember one day entering the 12ft part of the pool using the ladder, and then letting go! My mother was there, just in case I freaked out, but I didn’t. I just spontaneously learned the “doggie paddle.”

    As I got older, I actually joined the swim team and loved it!

    But what I was always impressed with where the kids on the team who were also high divers. Yet, that was something I never did because I didn’t like heights.

    Hope you had a FAB Thanksgiving Day, my friend!


    • Ron, that must be an Italian gene that brings about fear of the water, ha!!

      I enjoyed your reminisces about learning to swim. I sort of remember the strokes, but I haven’t practiced them in so long, I don’t know if I’d remember if I had to use them. That said, the “doggie paddle” will serve in a pinch — and we all resort to that, don’t we?!?

      You were on the swim team? Now I’m impressed. People who can do stuff I can’t do are amazing! GOOD for your mom, insisting you acclimate to the water.

      Thanksgiving here was splendid — hope yours was wonderful, too!

  4. I remember swim lessons as a kid – and my trouble with floating on my back (makes sense that a skeleton would have trouble floating, haha!) I had both of our kids do swim lessons, too. They didn’t have to worry about icy water, though – it’s pretty hot by the time June rolls around. I can swim in a pinch, but I really don’t enjoy it. I prefer to watch others swim while relaxing on dry ground 🙂

    • I insisted Domer do swimming lessons, too (might as well share the misery, huh?!). He enjoyed it more than I did. In fact, when he got to Notre Dame, ALL freshmen had to pass swimming lessons. Pity the poor kids who, like me, were terrified of water, ha! At least you had warm water — so much better, I’d think, than having your lips turn blue!!

  5. This morning here in NY a car ran off the road into a pond. The driver was rescued and is find. The pond wasn’t deep. I was horrified watching that. Living on Long Island surrounded by water and living directly across from a canal is not easy for me. Hurricane Sandy was frightening for me. Why? Because I am terrified of water!!! I too was pushed into a pool. I can still feel the fear after over 40 years.

    I wish I could swim. My kids can swim because my church members…behind my back taught them how…thank God. My husband swims. When I got baptized in a tank….I was scared to tears. I panicked when they put me under the water and I let go of holding my nose. But I lived!! Just writing this is making feel like I can’t breath so I’m gonna stop here! LOL!

    • Oh, Tanya, you poor dear. Being pushed into a pool and being expected to just swim like a fish must have been terrifying. I’m glad you survived — and continue to do so, even after Sandy. I guess that’s one good thing about living in a land-locked state — knowing we don’t have hurricanes.

      I was baptized as an infant. Back then, we just were sprinkled. Not too scary. Since then, I’ve seen Protestant baptisms with the “dunking tank,” and I just know I wouldn’t enjoy that!! We Catholics now offer both options — and to this day, I’d still choose being sprinkled!!

  6. I think my dad could swim, but my mom couldn’t. They sent me off to the Y for lessons. Here’s my little tale of horror. They got me in an intermediate class, rather than the beginners’. When the instruction said, “Jump in,” I was so shy I didn’t raise my hand to say I couldn’t swim. I just jumped in. I went straight to the bottom, of course, but they got me out in a flash.

    I got over it, eventually, and by high school was doing a little springboard diving and willing to jump off the high dive. But I still wasn’t totally comfortable. In fact, when I started sailing and ended up in the Caribbean, it was another learning curve before I could snorkel comfortably. But I did dive Thunderball Cave — probably my last ever watery experience, unless something goes terribly wrong!

    • Linda, I’d have been too shy to admit I was in the wrong class, too. In fact, I still have “nightmares” of being in the wrong class. Or not having the right books. Stuff, I’m sure, a psychiatrist would have a field day with!

      Glad you learned to overcome this scary beginning — of course, you would definitely be in the wrong profession if you hadn’t, right?!!

  7. Have I ever seen a skinny kid float? Now that’s something to ponder for the ages, Debbie. Funny image. I wonder how many of us have traumatic memories of learning to swim. Mine is from a high dive from where I was terrified to dive and the instructor was getting impatient with me from the side of the pool and the other kids in my class were all staring and I wanted to cry but I did it and he had to stick the pole thing in the water for me to grab to come back up to surface. I’m sure because I freaked out. geez….it’s amazing I like to swim now.

    • I know that freaked out feeling, Barb, and it isn’t pleasant. After we supposedly “knew” how to swim, several of us one day were playing too close to the deep end of the pool, when we found ourselves literally in over our heads. I doggie-paddled to the bank, but the two girls I was with had to have the lifeguard grab them. It could have been a tragedy, and I still get shivers thinking about it. Glad you found swimming to be something you enjoyed!

  8. Oh gosh, I LOVED the water as a kid. Of course, living in the land of 10,000 lakes, it was probably inevitable. I desperately wanted swimming lessons, but never had anything formal. There was a one-week spring break swimming “class” but I mostly remember just playing in the pool and not wanting our time to come to an end. Today I can manage most of the basics, but I am by no means a swimmer.

    • Terri, you’re fortunate to have loved the water. I missed out when my friends went to the lake because I realized that, even with swimming lessons, I was far from being a “swimmer.” Water-skiing? Boating? Nope, don’t want to participate in those either. I guess I’ll have to enjoy your water posts vicariously!!

  9. Ha ha, Debbie. I, too, had swimming lessons, along with my brother, Ralphie (that’s what we called him then) who’s a little older than me. I was never that good, but I got by and thankfully, I never feared the concept of swimming. Not even when I almost drowned one time when I accidentally walked into the deep end of the pool, fully clothed. In college, freshmen had to take a swim test upon arrival at school, which consisted of just two laps. Guess what? I passed. Those who didn’t pass, had to take swimming. Since I passed, I got to take fencing. That was fun, though don’t ask me now to fence. I long ago forgot how. Sigh. 😉

    • Fencing?? How awesome! Playing with a sword sounds like great fun. A bit dangerous, perhaps, but cool once you learned how. We didn’t have to take swimming at college, thank Heaven. However, all the good, interesting classes were full by the time I registered as a freshman, so my choices were weight-lifting with the football players or square dancing (neither of which I wanted to do at 8 in the morning, ha!!)

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