Not Out for a Swim: An Essay About Learning to be Comfortable in the Water

Never learning to be comfortable in the water leaves a longtime impression.
Illustration by Rachel Idzerda

I don’t know how to swim. I say this with the embarrassment of someone revealing a secret to members of a support group, such as Non-Swimmers Anonymous. But there is no such group, because I’m probably the only person in O.C. who can’t do even a respectable dog paddle. I grew up in Michigan, surrounded by lakes, and now live in California with the ocean nearby and swimming pools everywhere. What happened?

As a kid I loved Esther Williams, swimming underwater like a mermaid, smiling, with her eyes open. I wanted to do that, but first I needed to learn to swim. There was no opportunity: We didn’t have a pool, nor did anyone we knew, and we didn’t live near one of the many lakes.

When I was 15, my friend Robbie invited me to stay for a few days at her parents’ summer cottage on the lake. Great! By now I had developed a fear of water. Was I ready to have another teenager teaching me in a possibly bottomless lake? Drowning crossed my mind a lot.

“Don’t worry,” Robbie said. “You’ll learn to float first, and the rest will be easy.”

I didn’t like water in my face. Swimming requires putting your face in the water, turning your head from side to side as you gasp for air, while coordinating arm and leg movements. But I was not willing to be teased by Robbie’s two younger brothers for admitting how scared this made me. With a brave smile, I proceeded into the lake, watching my steps through murky water.

Trusting Robbie, I let her hold my shoulders as she eased me back into the water. I paddled my hands and kicked my legs. Amazingly, I floated for a short time. Very short. I became anxious and started to sink. I splashed around, her brothers laughed, Robbie tried not to. I found my feet and walked to the shore. I was done.

When a job opportunity brought our family to Orange County, we happily settled in Orange. Most houses had a swimming pool, and the ocean was a short drive away. I made sure my two small children had swim lessons so they could safely enjoy future pool parties and beach trips. They took to the water, unlike their mother, developing into adept swimmers who found the water a comfortable place.

Warm weather brought out invitations to poolside barbecues, birthday parties, and get-togethers for no reason at all. The pool was usually part of the fun. As my friends dove and swam, I walked into the shallow end, splashed around, and then went back to sunning myself. I became very good at that.

My children loved going to the beach. Our favorite was Little Corona. I’d pack a lunch, lie on a large blanket, and watch them as they frolicked in the ocean. When the hot sun had me melting, I’d walk into the water (never going farther than waist level), splash a little to cool off, and return to the blanket. My reward was an amazing tan. I enjoyed trips to the beach even after my children were old enough to go on their own. Listening to the waves lapping against the shore and being in the water (as long as I could touch bottom), I felt refreshed. I never ventured farther than that. The thought of my face in the water was frightening. I envied those who could cut the ocean gracefully, with barely a splash, and smoothly swim away.

My resolve to always stay above the water was tested when my husband, Ben, and I moved to a senior community in Rancho Mission Viejo. Among the many amenities was a beautiful swimming pool. Among the exercise classes offered was water aerobics. I loved to exercise, and the resistance that water gave to the usual routines was easy on the body. Of course, I scouted out the pool, learning the shallow end was 3½ feet deep, progressing to a deep end of 5 feet. No problem. I’m taller than the deepest end, and would never go there anyway.

Another problem presented itself. The class was 45 minutes long. I’d never remained in any body of water more than 10 minutes. Would this class work for me? Ben assured me it would be fine. I’d do it!

Approximately 20 residents were gathered in the pool when Ben and I arrived. We joined them. Laura, our instructor, stood at the side of the pool to guide us in our exercises, mimicking the moves she expected us to do. The water was warm, and I found myself moving comfortably with the class. After 20 minutes passed, I congratulated myself on my progress. Then Laura added the noodle, a long, tubular piece I’d never seen, but everyone else seemed familiar with. Each person was given one. I reluctantly received mine. It felt heavier than it looked.

The noodle allowed us to do resistance exercises we would otherwise do with weights in a gym. I held the noodle in front of me and did push-ups on it as Laura directed. Then she asked us to put the noodle behind our back, linking our arms around either side, and sit on it. OK. Everyone else sat on their noodles. I lowered mine and sat on it. Immediately I fell backward into the water, my face fully submerged. Terrified, I flailed around, trying to right myself, but the noodle held me down. I surfaced long enough to see Laura running toward me, and then I was under again. Would I be rescued in time or drown in 3½ feet of water?

Trying not to breathe in water, I managed to work myself to the edge of the pool. I grabbed it as Laura reached for me. Finally taking in air again, I couldn’t get rid of the noodle fast enough. The memory of my face under water would never be forgotten. But I was out, coughing and sputtering. Laura seemed as relieved as I was.

I left the pool. The class was over for me. I lingered with Ben for a while, then we gathered our towels and left.

“You’ll go again, won’t you?” Ben asked, no doubt not wanting this experience to be my last memory of water aerobics.

“I’ll see. Probably.”

Soon after, the pandemic settled the question, at least temporarily. The pool closed. Secretly, it was a relief. Yet I still yearned to be comfortable in water—maybe not as comfortable as Esther Williams, but enough to enjoy myself.

I’m pretty sure I’ll try the class again once the pool opens. Only this time, when the noodle is offered, I’ll say, “No thank you.”

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