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The Reluctant Swimmer's Guide to Life

Swimming felt like something I should learn how to do. It always sounded wrong when I told people I "didn't know how" to swim.

I've always been a late bloomer, or perhaps the more precise term is scaredy cat. Over the summer in Coney Island, I held my friends' purses as they rode the Cyclone, and decided I'll be OK if I never ride a roller coaster. Ditto for bungee jumping, Birthright Israel, drugs.


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Swimming, though, felt like something I should learn how to do. It always sounded wrong when I told people I "didn't know how" to swim. I knew how intellectually—go underwater, move arms and legs—I just wouldn't do it. For a while, my line was that I would take a mommy-and-me class when I had kids, and learn alongside them. But I realized that that might never happen, for a million reasons, and well, no time like the present, right? When you're a late bloomer, you're often tempted to declare it "too late" to do something. Funnily enough, though, it just keeps getting later.

According to the Red Cross, about 54 percent of Americans either can't swim or lack basic swimming skills. But there's a difference between never having learned to swim for lack of access and being afraid. For many people who are afraid of swimming, it goes back to a specific childhood trauma. I have no such excuse. Growing up, I had friends and babysitters with pools, some summers my family joined swim clubs, and I even attended day camps where we spent daily periods in the pool. I wasn't afraid of the water; I just never went in the deep end or put my head under.

I made a commitment to change all that this fall: a commitment to be at the pool twice a week, to reek of chlorine much of the time, to shave my legs long after tights season had commenced.

I made a commitment to change all that this fall: a commitment to be at the pool twice a week, to reek of chlorine much of the time, to shave my legs long after tights season had commenced.

I convinced myself once before that it was time to learn to swim. Shortly before my 25th birthday, I signed up for adult beginner swimming classes at Manhattan's McBurney YMCA. I was just a little bit cocky: maybe they'd bump me up to the "advanced beginner" level when they saw how not-scared I was of getting in the water.

This attitude didn't last long. On the first day, my instructor told my dozen or so classmates and me to put our heads underwater. Right away, just like that? It seemed to me like something we should build up to. If we could put our heads underwater on our own, why would we need to be here in the first place? My nerves came back, and they were indignant. I thought this was a class for beginners! Surely putting one's head under water is a higher-level skill? (It isn't.)

The instructor had a word with me after class. He had noticed that, while my need to keep my head dry would certainly get in the way of things, I was also walking on my tip-toes in the pool. This, apparently, was a tell-tale sign that I wasn't comfortable in the water. The instructor recommended I take a different class, one for "the reluctant swimmer."

It was two years before I signed up for the reluctant swimmers class. Maybe those two years were necessary: maybe it was on my mind's back-burner the whole time, a tab containing a streaming video that took two years to buffer. I only say this because during my first class as a reluctant swimmer, my instructor told me to put my head underwater, and by god, I did it.

There were a few other things about swimming that I was more prepared for the second time around. For one, I bought goggles. Goggles were a revelation to me. You're telling me that there are special underwater glasses I can put on that will enable me to keep my eyes open and see while immersed? Does everyone know about this?

I also wore a one-piece. Two years ago, I'd been trying to follow Nora Ephron's credo to proudly don a bikini while I was still young, and while I still find this advice valid, moving outside my comfort zone proved much more comfortable with my belly-button covered. On top of my one-piece, I wore a pair of swimming trunks. I allowed myself to channel the childhood pool-party guest who insists on covering herself with a giant t-shirt: whatever I needed to feel at ease. Once, at the pool, I spied a woman wearing a full wet suit. While people do occasionally take scuba lessons at the McBurney Y, she was wearing it for a water aerobics class: lady, you do you.

There was one other student in my class, another woman, and our instructor was Paul, a man with a Santa Claus belly who told me to call him "the doctor." I worried about this; I sometimes feel like an idiot trying to be informal with people I don't know well, but it turns out names don't matter in the pool. Paul was a stranger who I would have to reveal my most intimate fears to and entrust with my life. "Stop thinking so much," he would tell me when I tensed up, knowing everything and nothing about me.

Breathing is the hardest part, aside from actually forcing yourself to do the things that scare you, which is hard in a different way.

We wore floatation belts and used noodles, which is just about the most undignified name for a piece of instructional equipment I can imagine, matched only by the ridiculousness of the thing itself. I was a grown woman, with floatation devices strapped to my waist and a long foam cylinder between my legs, and I was not ashamed. This is one reason the Y is a good place to learn to swim: it is frequented by a wide range of people, old to young, fit to out-of-shape, and mostly they do not flinch upon the sight of a fully functional adult learning to swim. Also, they stay in their own lanes. That's another thing about learning to swim; you see metaphors everywhere: "the fast lane," "the deep end," both places I wouldn't go.

My classmate and I had different strengths and weaknesses. She had great form; I'm sure I frequently looked like a spaz, flailing all over the place, though I'll add that being surrounded by water makes one feel less spaz-like than usual. Me, I sucked at breathing, but weirdly, I was the braver of the two of us. We developed a rapport; when our instructor would ask us to do something, sometimes she would point to me: "Her first." I knew what she was afraid of (the deep end), and she knew what I was afraid of (the idea of jumping in).

I couldn't tell you her name, not because I want to protect her identity (though I do), but because, I'm embarrassed to admit, for all we went through together in two months of classes, I never learned it. I don't know what she did for a living or where she lived, and I had only a small clue about why she was learning to swim (something about a trip to Hawaii). It was one of the many weirdnesses of learning to swim. For example, I've never understood floating. How do you just…stay up? But in swimming class, I floated for the first time (and the second time, and third, and so on), on my back, starring up at the ceiling and thinking about the essential strangeness of it all: there I was in the pool, doing this thing, conquering my fears, in some ways changing my whole life; outside, there was New York City, going on in much the same way it always did.

Early on, I had a tense moment involving a swim cap, which everyone is required to wear in the pool, and which no one tells you how to properly put on when you have a lot of hair and a not-small head. (Lycra rather than rubber caps are the answer, it turns out.) I teetered on the edge of bursting into tears, freaking out, quitting, but kept it together, somehow. Sometimes, Paul would tell us to do something, like blow bubbles underwater, and I would ask questions, not understanding how, and he would offer only: just do it. On the one hand, ?!?!, but on the other: fair point. Sometimes just trying is the only way through.

When things were going well, when I was getting it, I'd wonder, "Am I a swimming prodigy?" I saw myself doing cartwheels—which I can't do on land—under water, a synchronized swimming team of one. Then I would remember I was about 20 years late for that, and that I couldn't manage to breathe every few strokes like I was supposed to. I swallowed tons of water ("Don't do that!" my instructor helpfully advised), and thought about how in addition to being a remedial swimmer, I was also probably a remedial breather. In other situations when I had to concentrate on breathing a certain way—the rare pilates class, hookah bars (were we ever so young?), childhood breath-holding contests—I had cheated, or failed. This is a common problem, I learned later; breathing is the hardest part, aside from actually forcing yourself to do the things that scare you, which is hard in a different way.

On my last day of class, I jumped into the deep end. I was wearing a floatation belt while I did it, but that in no way diminishes my pride. How many people can truly say they've done the thing that scares them most? Up until right before I did it, I wasn't sure I'd go through with it. And yet, I closed my eyes and jumped. I wasn't prepared for how far under the water's surface I'd be, and I still don't like not being able to feel the bottom of the pool under me, but I floated back up, lived to take another breath.

Around this same time, I started a new job. Like I said, I was making big changes. My new colleagues joked about how the company was sink or swim, how they really threw you into the deep end. I didn't mind; I'd already thrown myself in once.

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