On one side of the Dale City recreation center swimming pool, a dozen babies between the ages of 6 months and 30 months splashed happily in their mothers' arms. On the other side, four adult women tried to follow teacher Bev Furman's instruction to put their faces in the water and swim to poolside several feet away.
Kay Kramer couldn't do it. "That's the hardest part for me," she said later. "Putting my face under the water. I think things like, 'Will I come back up? Will I survive this?' "
Kramer and her three partners in the fear of swimming are attending their sixth and last class of aquatic instruction for "Terrified Adults," a concept one step beyond beginners' swim classes. The course teaches frightened adults not to be afraid of the water.
"We discovered in trying to teach terribly terrified adults to swim in a beginners' class we were having people hyperventilate when they got wet, and some even vomited out of fear," said chief aquatics instructor Beverly Byron. "We realized we had to deal with that fear first and teach swimming later."
Most adults know why they are terrified of the water, Byron said, and it is important to the success of the program that they do understand it. But some do not know. Carla Memory is one of those.
"I know I got thrown into the water twice when I was young," she said, "but I was scared before that happened. Being thrown in just added to it."
Memory, who has two sons, ages 2 and 4, has tried to keep her fear from her children. "We never came to the pool because of me, though. So I decided to try this."
Memory said Gary, her husband of five years, helps her with her "homework."
"We come to the pool several times a week since I started this class, and we practice. I still don't like it, but I do it. I still need to feel my feet on the bottom." Memory said that after the course she will continue to practice with her husband until she feels confident about her skills in the water.
Kramer, Joyce Menefee and Muriel Buckman plan, they say, to repeat the six-week course at least once before striking out on their own.
"The word 'terrified' described how we all felt at the beginning," said Menefee. "Now I think we're just scared." The others agreed.
Menefee said she took the class because her daughter picked up on her mother's fear of water and got a D in a swimming class that was a requirement for her high school graduation. "I realized I not only had to get over my fear," Menefee said, "but I hope I can inspire her to try it, too."
Buckman said her terror of the water began when she was about 6 years old.
"I was in a swimming class when the polio scare happened in the '40s. My mother yanked me out of class with all kinds of horror stories about what the water can do to you. I never got over it."
The instructors stress that all students must be self-motivated. "It doesn't do any good if the terrified adult is shamed or forced into coming here by a husband or anybody else," Byron said.
Even self-motivation can't get some students into the water the first time. "Getting them out of the locker room can be difficult," said instructor Judi Fitzwater.
Furman, Fitzwater and Karol Lurch were chosen to teach the course, Byron said, because of their patience with frightened grown-ups. When Menefee said she was afraid to try standing up after floating on her back, instructor Furman gave her two plastic dumbbells to help steady her while she did it.
"What will I do if they take these away?" Menefee said with a nervous laugh.
Women outnumber men six to one in the Terrified Adult classes, said Furman. "I think men cannot admit they have this fear . . . . So they get their exercise in other ways and just avoid the water."
At the end of the lesson, Furman assured them that the real bravery was in admitting the terror and working to overcome it. The most important thing, she reminded them, is learning to breathe under water. "Practice in a bucket, in a pan or in the bathtub," she said.
Buckman glanced at the babies paddling while their mothers glided around. "I wish someone had done that for me," she said. "It's embarrassing to watch them." The other four agreed, but, said Menefee, "If they can do it, we can too."