A Swimming Lesson
By Joyce E. Byrd
WHO SAYS you can’t teach an
old dog new tricks? I am learning to swim…at the
gentle age of 40.
You see, I have a fear of water.
When I was 4 years old, I was involved in a boating “incident”
as my parents called it. Six adults and I were in a
small boat enjoying a cruise in the San Francisco Bay. Suddenly,
a violent storm blew in. The adults soon lost control
of the boat, and we began taking in water. One of the
adults was in a full-leg cast, so she became the designated
calmer (for me) while everyone else frantically bailed and
attempted to navigate the boat. The Coast Guard cruised
around the bay a couple of times sounding warnings, but did
not see or hear us waving and shouting to them. Then,
they disappeared to the shore.
We began taking in water faster than it could be bailed.
The adults began to panic. I remember my mother screaming
at my father that our predicament was his fault – we
never should have been out in the bay in such a small boat
with so many people. Everyone was anxious, expecting
Then a miracle occurred. Out of nowhere, a yacht appeared.
This wasn’t just a nice cabin cruiser or large
sailboat; it was the fabulous indulgence of a clearly wealthy
philanthropist. We later learned the yacht was completing
a tour of the world. Everyone in our little boat began
hollering and waving toward the yacht and, fortunately, we
were seen or heard or both.
Soon, we all were draped in warm towels sipping warm, comforting
beverages – mine was hot chocolate, I can only guess
what the adults were drinking. Even with the vast size
of the yacht, I remember that the choppy waves from the storm
produced a rather turbulent ride. With our little boat
in tow, the yacht carried us safely back to shore.
After that "incident" I was terrified of the water.
Bath time became an incessant battle of wills. I refused
to allow the bath water to rise more than a couple of inches
from the bottom of the tub. Showers were worse because my
head would get wet and I might drown. Shampooing my
hair was a nightmare.
For most of my life, I managed to artfully elude situations
around water. We seldom visited lakes and I rarely attended
pool parties. Once I attained puberty, people delicately
avoided asking why I didn’t put on my bathing suit or
get into the water, unwittingly accommodating my evasion.
Eventually, I allowed myself to wade in to water until it
covered my ankles – that was far enough. Whenever anyone
asked – or threatened to throw me in – I would
announce that I could not swim, but I never volunteered the
Occasionally, friends would attempt to convince me that the
water held nothing to fear by splashing it at me and forcing
me in. Not a pretty picture.
I never really felt that I was missing anything by not swimming
or participating in water sports. After all, I hated
the water, so what fun could I possibly be missing?
When my husband and I started dating, I learned that he loved
to scuba dive. I later learned just how much he loves
the water and all water sports. At the time, I told
him I could not swim, but I would be interested in scuba diving.
He has held me to it. The things we do for love.
Recently, we moved to a new home overlooking a beautiful
pond. It occurred to me that I should be able to swim
in case a child or pet should encounter trouble in the water.
Our 65-pound Clumber Spaniel puppy already has taken two impromptu
plunges chasing after elusive turtles. Used as retrievers
by bird hunters, Clumbers have webbed feet, you know.
Friends of ours have a pool that is only about 5’ deep
at its bottommost point. They have offered us unlimited
use of it so my husband can teach me to swim.
My husband, a former professor and one-time lifeguard, is
an excellent swimming instructor. Knowing my fear of
the water, he started with me standing at the shallow end
of the pool taking a deep breath, submerging my face, and
slowly exhaling into the water through my nose. Then,
he taught me how to float on my back, assuring me that if
ever I sensed trouble in the water, I could naturally float
by relaxing and allowing my body to buoy to the water’s
surface. Of course, that’s easier said than done
when you are terrified of the water. Panic seems a much
more natural reaction than relaxing.
In the first lesson I also learned the arm movement mechanics
of the backstroke and the leg motions associated with the
“frog kick”. In my second lesson, I combined
the arm and leg actions and successfully did the backstroke!
I also learned the flutter kick. After a couple of laps
with my husband nearby providing a lift whenever I dipped
a bit too low in the water, he let me try it on my own. Of
course, he wasn’t far away. I managed to sink
a bit lower than I would have liked (glub, glub), but I rebounded
on my own. The key was that I managed to concentrate
on the buoyancy techniques I had learned instead of panicking.
What’s more, I actually found myself enjoying the water!
I was swimming! I was floating! I was getting
a good workout without straining my joints. And, I was
having fun! Who would have ever thought it possible?
Surely, not me.
I don’t think I’m ready to save anyone in the
pond yet, but give me another couple of lessons and I’ll
be looking for a reason to get in the water. That is,
unless our puppy gives me a reason sooner than I’d like.
Now, I think I’ll take a long, hot bath in neck-deep
bubbles. I just wish it hadn’t taken me 40 years
to discover the relaxing properties of water.
Copyright © 1999, Joyce E. Byrd