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by Daniel Paulling

July 11, 2017

A Sarasota, Fla., adult learn-to-swim program helped nearly 30 people

Steve Woolson wants to swim with his grandson.

The 68-year-old had a traumatic experience with an instructor when he was about 6 or 7 years old and never learned how to swim. Because of this, Woolson spent years holding onto the side of pools while his wife and children were in the water.

“The instructor actually laughed at me when I went under the water and couldn’t get up,” Woolson says. “Somebody had to help me get out of the water. He didn’t do me a very good job. He scared me to death. I got out of the pool, left, and never came back.”

But things changed after Woolson’s daughter adopted a boy, Liam, from Uganda a few years ago. The 6-year-old has since learned how to swim, motivating Woolson to learn.

Woolson was one of 29 people who signed up for adult learn-to-swim classes offered in April at a YMCA in Sarasota, Fla. Members of the Sarasota YMCA Sharks Masters club volunteered their time to teach the twice-a-week lessons. Fifteen of the students, including Woolson, gained so much from them that they continued their lessons through the Y during May.

The lessons—which were offered as part of USMS’s nationwide adult learn-to-swim initiative—have been life-changing for Woolson.

“I’m not scared of the water, but I’m scared of not doing the technique right and then,” he says, motioning downward with a hand to indicate he’d sink. “I’m afraid of learning everything that needs to be learned, processing the entire amount of stuff that has to be done—using your muscles and how to kick your legs in the water. I’m slowly getting over that.”

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How much the program could pay off could be seen a few lanes over.

Gabriel and Pat Rodriguez, both of whom are 47, signed up for the hour-long lessons after their 12-year-old son, Nickolas, began swimming with a local youth team. The Sharks Masters trained at the same time, and Pat was impressed with what they were doing.

“They can be 20 to 80 years old, and they’re swimming the same as the kids,” she says. “When you work out at the gym, there’s other things, as you get older, you can’t do anymore. We did research, and basically swimming doesn’t have any impact on your body, you work your whole body. They look awesome.”

The two signed up because they wanted to learn basic stroke technique—the program focuses on freestyle and backstroke—so they could join the Masters swim club. The Rodriguezes have shown a drastic improvement in just eight weeks, part of which stems from their willingness to practice before work and in their pool at home.

Four weeks into their lessons, they swam 25 yards for the first time, in 32 strokes. They trimmed that number to slightly more than 10 a few weeks later. Their instructor, Bill Ewell, responded by jumping up and down and clapping. He had wanted them to do 17.

“He was super happy,” Gabriel says. “He’s super smart, he’s really friendly.

“People like Bill, [they have] that social responsibility to share what they know with people. I think that’s what makes these [lessons] so wonderful. They really want to share their knowledge.”

That knowledge has helped Barbara Culkin become more comfortable in the water.

The 42-year-old did some swim lessons around the age of 20 but never completed the course. After recently moving from New Jersey to Florida, she decided she wants to snorkel and do other water activities in her new coastal town, which led her to sign up.

Culkin also wants to be able to take her “daredevil” sons to the community pool near the family’s home by herself. Now, she usually goes with her husband, who was a lifeguard.

“I love being in the water in … 3, 4 feet of water,” Culkin says. “But if I can’t touch the ground, I still get nervous.

“But I just feel like these lessons have been so helpful, and I’ve come a long way. A lot of people say float, just float, and, for me, that was so hard. Here, I’m just taking it step by step, and I was able to do it. Now, I can do it.”

Woolson is taking the same approach, step by step, as he draws closer to his goal. He hasn’t swum 25 yards yet, but he’s progressed gradually, going from doing bobs to learning how to float on his back using a noodle as support.

It’s only a matter of time before he’ll be swimming with his grandson.

“I’m not there yet,” Woolson says, “but I’m a lot better than I was eight weeks ago.”

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 other adults.

Want to learn how to swim? Find an ALTS instructor in your area.


  • Adult Learn-to-Swim


  • SSLF
  • ALTS
  • Biography