Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Opinion | The Checkup With Dr. Wen: Adults can learn to swim, too. This is my journey.

Opinion | The Checkup With Dr. Wen: Adults can learn to swim, too. This is my journey.


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It was an idyllic summer afternoon in 2021. My family had just joined our neighborhood pool. More than a year into the pandemic, I thought that hanging out with other families outdoors was a covid-safe way to reintroduce socialization to my children.

A group of older kids were horsing around and shoving each other into the pool. My 3-year-old, Eli, decided he wanted to do the same and pushed his 1-year-old sister Isabelle into the water.

I was terrified. I was less than two feet away from my daughter, yet I couldn’t rescue her because I didn’t know how to swim.

The terrible statistics flashed through my mind. I knew that drowning is the No. 1 cause of death among children ages 1 to 4. For kids 5 to 14, it’s the second-leading cause of unintentional injury death after motor vehicle accidents. Among younger children, most drownings occur in home swimming pools. Close adult supervision and, crucially, early swim lessons, are associated with reduced risk of drowning.

I never had those swim lessons myself. In fact, I had such fear of water that I had never put my head underwater, not even in the bathtub. I had bad asthma as a child, and I thought that being submerged would be like choking during an asthma attack. My mother didn’t know how to swim either, so she never pressed me to learn. This is common; one study found that if the child’s parents don’t know how to swim, there is only a 19 percent chance that the child will learn.

As I watched my daughter sink silently to the bottom of the pool, I wished more than anything that I could dive in myself. Thankfully, there was a lifeguard who witnessed the whole thing and jumped in right away. Isabelle was fine; she didn’t even cry (though Eli did once he realized he could have really hurt his sister).

That day, I decided to enroll both of my kids in swim lessons. And I resolved that I would learn to swim myself.

Our local pool had lots of group lessons for kids. There were no such lessons for adult beginners — but a young woman, fresh from her collegiate swim career, was willing to teach me the basics. For weeks, all we did was blow bubbles. I started by putting my face in the water, then graduated to “sink downs,” where I exhaled fully and tried to relax while submerged.

“Don’t fight it, just be one with the water!” she said. That was easier said than done. When I started to learn freestyle, I’d panic and flail around until I could turn to breathe. I learned to flip onto my back to calm down.

It took a few months before I could make it to the other end of the pool without stopping. A few months after that, I could swim a few hundred yards, though I was still very slow. Kids not much older than Eli regularly lapped me, and I marveled at their effortlessness.

Indeed, it was humbling — and difficult — to learn a new skill as an adult. My coach was often stumped as she watched me struggle with a particular movement; when she’d learned as a child, moving her arms this way or that was so intuitive.

In a way, the challenge made each incremental improvement that much more satisfying. One day, I had an astounding revelation: After all these years of avoiding lakes and beaches, I actually liked the water. As I continued swimming, my goals changed from learning enough to survive, to swimming for fitness. Today, I enjoy the sport so much that I am training for my first open water race this summer.

Key to this newfound appreciation is the Masters Swimming Community. I had no idea there are so many adults who swim regularly for sport and enjoyment. Many swam competitively in high school and college and still participate in swim meets where they set ridiculously fast age-group records. Others are newer to the sport and, like me, are “adult-onset swimmers.” No matter our age or ability, we are welcome.

Nearly two years since I first started swimming, I am still one of the slowest members of my masters team. I still swim freestyle with my head too far out of the water and my legs too low, and the kindest thing someone could say about my other strokes is that I’m trying hard to learn them.

But I no longer fear the water. My children know that mommy swims and takes lessons just like they do. Though I wish I had learned this core life skill many years earlier, I feel so grateful to be practicing it now.

April is adult learn-to-swim month. I hope other non-swimmers will consider taking the plunge. For me, getting over my fear of water has been life-changing — and perhaps, one day, it will be lifesaving too.



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