Swimming Lessons – Part I

When I was a child, beginning at a very early age, I was enrolled, each and every summer in “Red Cross certified” swimming lessons. My mother was adamant about it, I remember well. I grew up in Napa, north of San Francisco forty or so miles. Perched on the northern most edge of the bay, summer mornings here are usually cold, gray, foggy and overcast. Did I mention cold? About noon, the sun manages to burn through the fog and it actually feels like summer should. I’ve been colder on summer mornings here than I have on winter nights on the east coast, or even the farthest northern reaches of Alaska. It’s a damp, penetrating cold, and there I was, a tiny, skinny, child, in a swim suit, tossed into a pool that couldn’t be heated enough to dispel the chill. Summer after summer, year after year, I learned to swim. I learned to float, I learned to kick, I learned to use my arms effectively. Most importantly, I learned to breathe.

Scarlette Begonia

And I swam. There was a neighborhood pool up the street. The adults on our block all pooled their money, no pun intended, and bought the lot up by the dead end. They formed an association, obtained financing, and built a fabulous pool, complete with a springy diving board. They sold memberships with a nominal monthly fee which paid off the loan, covered operation, maintenance and even provided for a lifeguard all summer long. The lifeguard taught swimming lessons in the morning, and kept us all supervised and out of our parents’ hair each and every afternoon. I swam. I swam every day, every summer.

With all those lessons, and all the swimming I did every summer, when I got to middle school and swimming was a P.E. class activity, I excelled. There were a few P.E. teachers at my middle school, Miss Harlow was my favorite, I thought she looked like Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island, but more than that, Miss Harlow was always especially nice to me, she knew my name and encouraged me to learn gymnastics, modern dance and to run hurdles on the track. The other P.E. teachers didn’t even know I existed.

It was in the eighth grade that Qwen arrived, an immigrant from Vietnam. I remember my home room teacher wanted me to sit with Qwen and, I guess, tutor her, that she may learn English and History more quickly. I had no idea how to make that happen! Qwen was in my French class, too, and, again, I was put on task to help Qwen. So, when Miss Harlow asked me to teach Qwen to swim, I wasn’t too shocked, and, more than English, History, and French, I felt like I could actually teach her something! I taught Qwen to float, to kick, to use her arms effectively, and, most importantly, to breathe. The school pool was slightly deeper at one end than the other. We worked in the shallower end for a few days, Qwen was short, I was short and super skinny, the shallow end was appropriate, we could touch the bottom comfortably flat-footed. I remember that our goal was for Qwen to be able to swim across the width of the pool, then the length of the pool, meaning we’d have to traverse the deeper water, where neither of us would be able to touch the bottom of the pool with our tippy toes. Within a week or so, Qwen was swimming across the width of the pool in the shallower end quite confidently. Miss Harlow really wanted to see her progress to swimming the length of the pool. I remember taking Qwen to the deeper end of the pool and trying to explain to her that she didn’t have to do anything different, just swim, just like in the shallow end. We slid into the water and hung onto the ledge. We both set off across the pool, in the deep end. I swam next to Qwen, it just seemed the thing to do. We got about a quarter of the way across, well out of grasp of the ledge. Qwen stopped, for some reason, Qwen stopped. She tried to find the bottom of the pool with her foot and couldn’t. She went under, then flailed wildly, her outstretched hand landed on my shoulder and in a moment, she was climbing on me, trying to get out of the water. I couldn’t touch the bottom, and though short, Qwen was larger and stronger than me. I’d had “junior lifesaving”, I knew you were never to jump in to save a drowning person because they’d pull you under trying to get to the surface. But, here I was. The pool was crowded with other kids, and I don’t think our plight was evident to anyone who mattered. All I could think to do was to flip over on my back and float and hope Qwen would calm down enough to do the same. Still she flailed and pushed me under, trying to stay on the surface. What I ended up doing, was bouncing, going under, hitting the bottom of the pool, and pushing off up and towards the ledge. After what seemed an impossible period of time, I managed to get us both within reach of the ledge.

We all feel like we’re drowning, at some point in our lives. Some of us more frequently than others. Some of us actually do, the waves of life crash into us until we can no longer hold our head above the water, and we slip under. This can manifest in health, both physical and emotional, it can impact all facets of our lives; family, career, friendships, relationships, longevity and quality of life.

If we can apply to life the basics we learn in swimming lessons, we stand a much better chance of floating right through the unavoidable challenges we face. The basics:

  1. Get in the water.
  2. Stay calm. Don’t be afraid. Don’t panic.
  3. Float.
  4. Kick and paddle.
  5. Build confidence.
  6. Breathe.
  7. Be aware. Have respect.

You absolutely cannot learn how to swim until you get in the water. Life is no different. You absolutely cannot learn how to live until you get out there and experience life. Jump in, don’t sit on the edge in fear and watch everyone else from the safety of the shore. Life, like swimming is far more enjoyable for the participants than for the spectators. Life is not a spectator sport, get off the lounge chair and get in the water!

As with most experiences in life, especially new ones, fear can be debilitating. Fear limits us. Like learning to swim in deep water, where you cannot touch the bottom of the pool, life has its risks, uncertainties and perils. Often in life we don’t feel like we can “touch the bottom”, and here, as in swimming, remaining calm is absolutely imperative. Qwen had the skills to swim in the deeper water, but because she panicked, she lost confidence and became fearful.

Learning to float is probably the most important lesson for a beginning swimmer. When you discover you can’t touch the bottom of the pool, when you grow too tired to tread water or kick and paddle, knowing you can float on your back, calmly, atop the water, is a great comfort. I remember the lifeguard who taught me my very first swimming lessons telling me, as I attempted to swim clear across the pool, “if you get tired, flip over on your back and float”. In life, when things get overwhelming, you can take a break and just float for a few moments, until you regain some strength, some energy, some clarity, and continue. For some of us, this may just mean a quiet night at home, a good night’s sleep, meditation, exercise, listening to soothing music, or spending time with friends and family. Whatever it is we do to stop kicking and paddling, to stop treading water, we must do when the time calls for it.

To get anywhere in the water you’ve got to kick and paddle. In a large body of water there may be a current that carries you for a ways, but at some point, the current will cease, or will take you in a direction you do not wish to go. In a pool, without kicking and paddling, you just bob. Or you sink. Life, like swimming, requires forward motion, propulsion, effort, if we are to make any progress.

From the very first swim lesson until the day we master every stroke, we build confidence. Without confidence, in swimming, fear sets in, we either fail to try new strokes, new skills, out of fear, or we panic and try to find a way out of the water. Life, living life, necessitates confidence. It is confidence we rely on when we face a new day, get out of bed, leave the house, and all the very basic things we do. It, too, is confidence we require to learn, to grow, to achieve, and to prosper. Confidence is gained through experience, both in swimming and in life. Confidence is gained in overcoming fear, in calmly pressing on, and with more confidence gained with each lesson, with each new experience, we become masters.

Breathe. In swimming, in most sports, as in life, breathing is critical. How often do we see folks in the water, paddling and kicking, with their face out of the water? Sure, they are making progress, slowly, but it’s the swimmer who breathes rhythmically with his strokes that covers great distances with efficiency and grace. By breathing, in life, I’m not referring to the involuntary inhalations we make that sustain us physically. I’m talking about the deliberate practice of breathing, deeply, rhythmically, calming the mind and awakening the heart. Whether you call this meditation, or practice this walking, standing, sitting, lying down, or during physical exertion, breathing is probably the most basic and beneficial life skill we can adopt.

Swimming, like many active pursuits, requires awareness and respect. Water is dangerous, awareness and respect are necessary. Swimmers need to be aware and respectful of the water itself, the depth, the temperature, the current. Swimmers need to be aware and respectful of their abilities, of the dangers, and of the consequences. In life, too, we have to be aware and respectful of ourselves, of others in our lives, of those around us. We need to be aware and respectful of our surroundings, our physical being, even of the thoughts that cross our mind. Everything influences our well-being, whether it is external or internal. Bringing awareness to all that influences us and building respect for ourselves is second only to breathing.

With swimming lessons we learn to swim, but there really isn’t a “Red Cross certified” series of life lessons we can enroll in. Much of life is by trial and error, by observation, by following examples, or advice, or muddling through and just trying to figure it all out on our own. Like swimming, or other things we are taught, by breaking our activities down, thoughtfully, into “lessons”, or skills, we can achieve the same level of success. So, go on, get in the water, don’t be afraid, don’t panic, kick and paddle, float when you need to, build confidence, and most importantly, breathe, be aware and have respect. Whether you’re in the shallow part of the pool or swimming in the surf, the skills you master from these very basic lessons will ensure your safety and survival. So, too, in life. Dive in.