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by Jerry McCormick

January 11, 2016

My ALTS Experience—Part 1: Overcoming a lifetime and culture of fear

What is it like to learn to swim as an adult? We asked journalist and nonswimmer Jerry McCormick to document his journey as he became safer and more comfortable in water with the help of one of our adult learn-to-swim instructors. This is the first in a four-article series in which Jerry shares his experiences.

I grew up surrounded by water, and to be honest, I was afraid of it. In fact, for most of my life, water has represented fear.

My hometown is Dillon, S.C., not too far from Myrtle Beach. All you have to do is hit Highway 301, and you’re there in less than an hour. But I can count on my hands the number of times my family and I went to the beach. On the news, we’d hear about people drowning there because they didn’t know how to swim. If you went to the beach, you’d probably die, I thought.

I remember, too, wanting to go to the Pee Dee River with the other kids in town, but my parents would tell me horror stories of some child drowning. So the river, instead of being a place to cool off during the hot summers in South Carolina, became a scary, forbidden place.

The city pool was also off-limits. There was an unwritten rule that black kids weren’t supposed to be at the city pool. So I didn’t go there for fear of being beaten up, or worse.      

When I got to college, I thought things would finally turn around. The brochure showed a sparkling pool and swim lessons were among the available classes. Great! I thought. This would finally be my chance.

Unfortunately, not enough people signed up for the class and, because of budget cuts, swimming was one of the first things to go. Plus, the pool wasn’t kept up the way it was supposed to be.

More obstacles to learning to swim.

After graduation I joined the Navy, and even passed a swim test. (They taught me to tread water.) But I remember one guy almost drowned during the test and had to be rescued. Swimming and fear were still linked.

My time in the Navy was short, and I stayed away from the water for a while after that. My journalism career took off and swimming fell on my priority list.         

I moved around a lot, eventually landing in San Diego. I lived there 13 years and hardly ever went to the beach, avoiding it because I couldn’t swim or surf. Why be near the ocean when I couldn’t truly enjoy it?  

I worked at the newspaper, and I’d read stories about someone drowning or being caught in a rip current. No, it’s best for me to stay away, I thought.

Over the years, when I’ve been at people’s homes with pools, I’ve made sure to stay in the house or well away from the pool. I didn’t want to fall in and not be able to save myself.

But, I’ve had enough.

Recently I moved back to San Diego, after living for awhile in Oregon, and the ocean is calling me. I want to swim across a pool. I’m overweight, and I want to be able to add swimming to my weight-loss plan. If I enjoy it enough, I might even make swimming my primary form of cardio.

I also want to set an example in my family. My fear of the water is shared by my brothers and sisters. I'm the ninth of nine children, and none of us knows how to swim. None of my nieces or nephews know how, either. I'm hoping I can encourage them to try. My sister Eloise was concerned that I’m doing this, but when she heard how happy and excited I am, she gave me her blessing.

I’m 47 years old, and I’m finally going to learn how to swim.

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Jerry McCormick's Adult Learn-to-Swim Experience


  • Adult Learn-to-Swim