Fear of the water has kept my dad from learning how to swim, until now
“Your mudder swam 600 yards last nite.”
The text from my father to me and my siblings was referencing my mom’s swim practice the night before. I called to congratulate her.
“Good job on your 600 yards last night,” I said.
“Oh! I’ve done that before,” she humbly dismissed. “But how did you know?”
“Dad is bragging about you on iMessage.”
“Well, did he tell you he swam 500?!”
No, he did not. Just like he didn’t tell me he was afraid of the water. Or that he wanted to learn to swim—until three months ago.
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With three children and three grandchildren who are or were competitive swimmers, my father, 74, has spent a good part of the past 40 years going to swim lessons, practices, meets, and water polo matches. But, by his own description, he floats “like a dead body.”
Let that one sink in for a moment.
I once tried to teach him to swim in our backyard pool, and the man went backward when kicking on a kickboard. I was 15 and had no idea how to help him. We laughed about it. Or maybe only I laughed. Thirty years passed before he asked me for help again.
“So. You think you could hook me up with a good swim instructor, so I could learn to swim?” he asked, out of the blue, on a Sunday in March when we were leaving one of my kids’ swim meets at the Sarasota Y.
Well, this is unexpected, I thought to myself.
“Um, yeah, Dad,” I said. “I think I can hook you up.”
Two years ago, I joined the National Office staff at U.S. Masters Swimming to manage its adult learn-to-swim initiative. The program trains swim instructors to work effectively with adult clients and provides grant funding through the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation, so more adult-swim lessons can be offered at affordable rates.
A third component is the national April is Adult Learn-to-Swim Month campaign. The campaign raises awareness about adult drowning risk, and many USMS clubs choose that month to give back to their communities by offering free or reduced-cost swim lessons to adults.
“You know,” I told my dad, “this Y branch and the (Sarasota) Sharks Masters are doing an April is Adult Learn-to-Swim Month program. There’s going to be a month of lessons with certified instructors for only $7.”
“Only $7!” my mother, who was walking with us, said. “Well, Doug, you have no excuse now. Maybe I’ll do it, too.”
Except there were plenty of other possible excuses. Diabetes. A lifetime of inactivity. Legitimate fear of the water. That sinking problem.
Dad went to the doctor and got the medical go-ahead to start the lessons. He researched the physics of floating on the internet. Then, $14 and about 10 days later, my parents became swimmers. Monday and Wednesday night lessons. Practice on their own, together, every day. The routine is old hat, but the players had changed. Swim parents became swimmers.
They worked with dedicated, enthusiastic, USMS-certified instructors who were volunteering their time, passion, and talents for the month of April. Dad was assigned to instructor Bill Ewell, who had organized the Sharks’ effort. Bill’s patience, empathy, and expertise were exactly what my father needed.
“Good luck with my dad,” I told Bill. “He’s sure to be a challenge.”
I wasn’t just concerned about the physical demands and coordination that would be required. I knew that my dad would be “that guy,” the one who would question the “why” behind the skills taught—not to be contrary—but because he would sincerely want to know. Bill would have to know his stuff.
Luckily, he did, and we’ve all decided he’s the nicest guy in town. He’s also an excellent and truly gifted teacher.
When the Sharks’ April program came to a close, there was enough interest from students and instructors to continue through May. They called it ALTS Plus, and my dad was among the students who kept with it. My mom didn’t—she had started from a more-advanced place and had reached her goals. But the two of them have continued swimming together every day at either the Y or at their apartment pool, practicing and supporting each other’s progress.
“Your dad’s backstroke is really improving,” she’ll say.
“Your mother needs to remember to extend her right arm when she swims freestyle,” he’ll say.
Their swim bags sit ready at their front door. My mother rushes home from dropping off my sons at swim practice (at two different pools!) to pick up my dad and get him to his lessons at yet another facility. They may be retired, but the Swim Taxi is not.
One night, sometime in the middle of May’s ALTS Plus, Dad said he was frustrated with not yet being able to swim freestyle and breathe to the side. He had mastered using a snorkel, and could roll from front to back to breathe, but traditional side-breath freestyle remained elusive.
“It can take some time,” I said. And even though, at his insistence, I hadn’t seen him swim yet, I knew he was making progress. “It’s pretty amazing how far you’ve come already,” I told him.
“I’m curious, too, now that you guys are swimming every day, do you feel any different? Can you tell that swimming is helping with anything?”
He was in the mood to grumble. “Not really,” he said.
My mother swooped in. “Hogwash!” she said. “You are getting up and down so much better. And think about how slow and careful you had to be on the steps at the pool when we started. Now you just get in and out!”
“I guess that’s true,” he admitted.
Only a few lessons later, Dad swam 25 yards of freestyle, side breathing, for the first time. I’m told that the whole place applauded, and I even got a note from a volunteer, telling me what a treat it was to watch his accomplishment.
“I’m starting to understand how some people find swimming to be enjoyable,” he said when he signed up for his third month of lessons at the beginning of June.
I have a hunch he’s really been enjoying it for 40 years. And I’m hopeful that it won’t be much longer before he’s comfortable enough to do a “big reveal” and let me see him swim down the pool. After all these years of his cheering for me, I’ll be proud to stand on the deck and cheer for him. I’ll even count for him if he wants to do a 500, or more.
But in the meantime, Bravo, Dad. I love you. Happy Father’s Day.
Want to help other adults learn how to swim? You can become a certified ALTS instructor or donate to the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation, which gives grants to programs across the country. Learn more about how ALTS has impacted adults across the country.
Want to learn how to swim? Find an ALTS instructor in your area.
- Human Interest
- Adult Learn-to-Swim