Jenya Frand-Green, 5 1/2 months old, slid into a Bethesda pool yesterday and was momentarily swallowed by four feet of water. But the valiant infant kicked her way to the surface, grabbed her mother and squealed an indecipherable string of exclamations.

Jenya had graduated with honors from the Bethesda Ymca's "water babies swimming program. Five other wet and smiling babies, ranging in age from 7 months to just-turned-2, joined their classmate in receiving honorary paper whale degrees.

Starting as young as 2 months old, the infants begin the slow, step-by-step process of the programs, which are offered at YMCAS and recreation centers throughout the Washington area.

"They don't have to learn anything -- they already know. [Water is] their environment," said Elsie Dacosta, the acquatic director of the Silver Spring YMCA. She said seven months into pregnancy, the babies have developed automatic reflexes that keep them from taking water into their lungs, and are, in effect, swimming inside the womb.

In the water babies classes, the infants first are made accustomed to the water by learning to splash themselves, are towed through the water as they kick their legs, and eventually learn to go underwater and kick their way to the surface.

At just 7 months old, Ryan Miller already can duck his head underwater and, with a little push from his mother, paddle several feet before surfacing with a wide, gummy smile.

"They need to be self-sufficient . . . to be able to handle themselves in a dangerous situation," Carol Eliot said. She has 3-year-old twin sons who began their swimming training at 8 months.

But son Philip seemed less concerned with self sufficiency than with the fun of it all. He said he merely likes "Jumping in . . . make a big splash."

"Do you know how to swim," Philip asked a stranger as he wore his oversized towel Superman-style. Philip had ready advice: "Kick your feet. Dig [in] the water." CAPTION: Picture, Jenya Frand-Green, 5 1/2 months old, tries floating, with the encouragement of her mother Deni, in the YMCA swimming pool in Bethesda. By Tom Allen -- The Washington Post