Learning to let the water hold you

Sep. 07, 2013 @ 08:27 AM

As a kid I took swimming lessons, and for the rest of my life have been considering myself a swimmer.   We spent long summer days at the pool and water-skied on the lake, and I never thought much about what it took to propel myself through the liquid.

But I started thinking about it last year when I signed up for the Raleigh Ramblin’ Rose Triathlon and discovered my limitations, especially with freestyle swimming.  So I’ve taken a couple of clinics, got myself a “pull buoy” and am practicing.  I have learned how good it feels to swim laps, pulling myself through the water, but I still have a long way to go.  For the first time in decades, I felt some fear, especially in the open water.

So it seems odd that I’d turn around and try to teach someone else how to swim.  The student, in this case, is a dear friend who had a bad experience in the deep end of a pool as a child.  People didn’t go to pools much where she grew up, and she never had the chance to learn to swim.  She wanted to confront her fear of the water, and I said I’d help. 

What I am showing Solita is not so much how to swim as how to trust.  It is a lesson I am still working on when I try to swim freestyle in deep water.  Sometimes I think we’re the best teachers when we’re still learning…when we still experience how hard it is, how scary it can be, and how frustrating when you make some progress and then regress.  When Solita is ready for technique, she’ll find a different teacher.

On our first visit to the Levin Jewish Community Center pool,  Solita kept a firm grip on my arm as we walked down the ramp and waded into the 3-foot-deep water.  I had only one goal for the day (and knew it would be a challenge), and that was to get Solita to float on her back…or even to try it.

That first day was almost magical.  Not only did Solita release her death grip on my arm, she floated, she went underwater, and, almost without realizing it, she swam!  One minute she was practicing a simple stroke to feel the resistance of the water, and in the next moment she was propelling herself across the shallow end.  “Solita,” I said quietly so as not to break the spell, “you’re swimming!”

The number of drowning deaths in this country is comparatively low, but the losses in a five-year span are equivalent to those in the twin towers on September 11, 2001.  We’ve learned that a drowning person often does not struggle and yell, as expected, but quietly slip beneath the surface.  I tried to teach Solita that “the water will hold you,” and to “float first” when she feels panicky in the water.

At our second swim Solita’s fear returned and she had to learn to relax again.  I tried to figure out the sources of her anxiety and address those with exercises.  “I am afraid I’ll breathe in water,” she said.  Laughingly I described some water games we played as kids, such as trying to sit on the bottom of the pool. 

“Let’s do that” Solita said, so we held hands and, like childhood buddies, pushed ourselves down to sit.  But we floated up again and again, laughing, which was another good lesson.  “The water will hold you.”  The skill of swimming (and safety) is to work with the liquid, not against it.  That lesson applies to so many other areas of life.

Solita briefly experienced that free, almost weightless feeling that swimming gives us, and is eager for more.  I think about her when I struggle across the pond with my freestyle stroke.  Though we’re on different places on the swimming learning curve, the lessons are the same…relax, stick with it, practice and work with the water, not against it.  Let the water hold you, and it will.

A CHH columnist since 1998, Susan Gladin is a freelance writer, United Methodist minister, and curriculum coordinator at the Johnson Intern Program in Chapel Hill. She tends horses and a home business on the farm she shares with her husband. Their two grown daughters live nearby. You may e-mail her at sgladin@gmail.com, or write c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.