Getting Into the Swim of Things

Instructor Jeff Roddin shows Cheryl Kravitz how to extend her arms while swimming.
Instructor Jeff Roddin shows Cheryl Kravitz how to extend her arms while swimming. (By Susan Biddle For The Washington Post)
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By Cheryl Kravitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 2, 2009

I remember the moment I decided to learn how to swim.

It was last summer at a family gathering in Arizona, and I was sitting poolside watching everyone else having fun in the water. My grandchildren asked me to join them. I dipped a foot in the shallow end, lowered myself in and made a half-hearted attempt at splashing.

"Come on and swim with us," they begged. I said what I've always said -- that I loved to watch everyone else and would rather just stand there. Then I heard one of the grown-ups whisper, "Leave her alone. She doesn't know how."

That's when I knew I was ready. And I soon discovered that learning to swim wasn't about swimming at all; it was about learning how to live with the water.

I am on the far side of 50, and I wasn't about to plunge in. These days, I need to be a bit more methodical, and I found myself thinking about swimming much as I might have approached another potentially dangerous skill, like driving a car or flying a plane.

Nor could I simply pick up a manual. I needed expert help. And that expert shouldn't be a relative. A spouse or sibling is great as an assistant coach, but a complete stranger needs to be in charge. Just as a driver's ed instructor had taught me a three-point turn, I would find an expert to teach me to flutter kick.

I did research. My timing was off for YMCA or parks and recreation classes. So I called friends, and one knew a man who competed as a Masters swimmer and who might just take me on.

Not only is Jeff a Masters swimmer, my friend told me. He is also a rocket scientist at NASA. Swimming is all about physics, I reasoned, and if scientists could put a man on the moon, they can get me floating on water.

My first lesson was at a pool in Silver Spring. While I was waiting at the front desk, a cacophony of children with goggles descended upon the lobby. I listened to them chatting confidently about strokes and turning and diving, and I felt the old anxieties return.

In the women's locker room I changed into my newly purchased suit and heard someone call my name. Who was here? Kathleen, a friend who has MS and swims for exercise. When I told her why I was at the pool, she looked me in the eye and said I could do it. It was what I needed to hear from the exactly the right person.

Emboldened, I went out for my first lesson.

Jeff did something very smart. He just let me talk. Now, I know there are schools of thought that a person should just be thrown into the water and they will instinctively know what to do. That ain't me. After about 20 minutes of learning about me, Jeff took my hand and we waded. We went from two feet to 4 1/2 feet. Over and over again. He wouldn't let go of my hand until I felt comfortable.

We went to the wall, where I held on and kicked. I put my face in the water -- and all I felt was fear. What if I couldn't breathe? What if I couldn't touch the ground?

I tried to block out the fears and listen instead to Jeff. And to my adult self.

Because what Jeff began to show me, week by week, was that I didn't have to worry about breathing if I started by floating on my back. That it didn't matter if I couldn't touch the ground if I could master the gentle technique of treading water. Indeed, before I tackled swimming through water, Jeff set about teaching me how to be in water.

I learned how to relax, how to position my hands and feet. And then one glorious evening I arched my back, put my head back and floated. From the safety of that position, I knew I could begin to learn the movements that would eventually propel me across the pool.

I go to my swimming lesson weekly. In between, I practice with my husband and younger daughter. I know I will never be Mark Spitz (hey, that's my generation), but I am now comfortable in the water.

And that's a whole new perspective for a woman whose earliest memories of growing up in Chicago were of avoiding the water. Sure, I occasionally went into the lake, but what I remember most about those summer outings was being the designated driver on dry land, assigned to watch wallets and transistor radios.

Years later, I remember being the poolside mother when my daughter went to a preschool that trained children how to swim as part of the curriculum. By the age of 4 she could have taught me a thing or two, just as my grandchildren could have done last year in Arizona. But I didn't allow them to.

So why now? I could sit here and tell you that I have some lofty incentives. I could say, and it would be true, that when I had knee surgery a few years ago my orthopedic surgeon said swimming is a terrific form of exercise. I could tell you that swimming would put into action the breathing techniques I have learned in yoga and the strengthening techniques I have learned in Jazzercise. It's all true.

But the real reason I wanted to know how to swim is that I was tired of not being as smart as a 4-year-old.

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