I almost drowned when I was 16. I was in the ocean at Rehoboth Beach, Del., after a week spent cooped up in a bungalow because of gale-force winds and driving rain from an offshore hurricane.
I waded out toward the breakers, ignoring warning signs to stay off the beach. A fierce undertow reached up to my thighs, then my waist, then my neck, before I was swept out to sea.
Waves broke over my head and I became disoriented, weak, frantic. Two sweetly adolescent notions kept me alive: one was the vivid image of the girl I loved unrequitedly. The other was the heartbreaking thought that if I died, I would lose whatever chance the future held for me to kiss her.
Fifteen minutes later, helpful friends and strangers hauled me out of the water. I grasped the cold, gritty sand like it was my childhood blankie. I coughed up water. My muscles were sore and my nerves were raw.
Lying prostrate on the beach, a new thought came to me: The next time I'm drowning in the ocean, romantic thoughts might keep up my spirits -- but nothing beats knowing how to swim.
It was a notion I largely ignored until a few weeks ago, when I was diverted from running, my main form of exercise, by a knee injury. (How very 32, huh?) I decided to take the plunge and learn how to swim -- despite a failed attempt at self-instruction three years before.
Grabbing my trusty Speedo, I headed down to the District's Jewish Community Center pool for my first real lesson (1529 16th St. NW, 202-777-3273, private 30-minute instruction is $30 for non-members, $18 for members). I chose the JCC for convenience -- and also, I'll admit, for their one-on-one classes. I liked the idea of having an instructor to myself, given my uneven record with water.
Elana Barrett, a Red Cross-certified Water Safety Instructor, was friendly and supportive -- most are, she told me. I guess you'd have to be, to coax students to shed their fear of the water, as well as the shame of being a grown adult awkward in anything but a kiddie pool.
During my half-hour lesson, Barrett examined my kicking, my strokes and my breathing -- and she made gentle suggestions. Breathe more frequently, like every other stroke. Kick more. Pace yourself. Pay attention to how your hand enters the water at the front of your stroke. Remember, she told me, that swimming is exercise just like running -- you have to build up your body to do it for long periods.
Throughout the lesson, Barrett peppered her comments with "That's great" -- or, more frequently, "Let's try it again."
Yes, I thought to myself, let's. And the next time I'm swept away from land, I'll recall Barrett's helpful invectives instead of the romantic fantasies of my youth.
What to expect: Adult swim instructors start slow with students, says Barrett. "I've worked with people where we sat on the side of the pool for half a class." The JCC offers private lessons, but many pools have group classes, which give students a chance to learn by watching, talking to and supporting each other.
When choosing an instructor, make sure he or she is certified as a Water Safety Instructor by the Red Cross, advises Barrett. Beyond that, "find somebody you feel comfortable with," she says. "You want to look forward to coming back."
Barrett gets in the pool with water-wary students to help get them accustomed to the shallows (the JCC pool begins at a four-foot depth). "We work on getting comfortable with water that's up to their waist," she says. Once comfortable, she helps her students try more -- submerging their faces, for instance.
Expect results, she says, but not necessarily right away. Improvements usually can be seen after a few classes, depending on the student. "Once [a student] starts feeling comfortable," says Barrett, "you see a leap." After that, progress comes with lots of practice.
Where to go: Dozens of pools in the D.C. area offer classes. Contact your local recreation department or community-based organizations such as YMCA or the JCC. If you belong to a private health club with a pool, it likely has private swim lessons too.
Cost: Prices vary widely. D.C. pools offer eight 50-minute sessions that are free for residents, $40 for non-residents. Many local counties offer packages of eight group classes for about $50-$70. Private pools often have membership fees on top of class prices that may be a little higher than those at public pools.