Fear of Floating

Learning to swim is even scarier when you?re all grown up


| November/December 1999


The water is warm and I relax into it, stroking evenly, entertaining images of Pablo Morales and Esther Williams and the guy in the red bathing suit swimming laps at the other end of the pool. But reality breaks in--I'm hardly moving and already out of breath. I gasp and inhale water. Panic ignites my arms and legs, and I thrash to the wall and clutch the lip of the pool near tile 5. It's only five feet deep here. The nearby relaxed laughter sounds mocking and my tired regret curdles into despair. I am excluded from this paradise because of my fear.

Weeks later, paging through a catalog, I find 'Swimming for Adults Afraid in Water,' offered by the Transpersonal Swimming Institute. 'You can overcome and heal this fear' the course description says. That'll take a miracle, my conscience says from its deck chair. Jump in, another voice replies. If not now, when?

Class one: Yellow tape warns us away from unsafe bleachers. Black ants meander over cracked and flaking paint. A funky gym is not a bad place to talk about fear. We face the pool, blue, a siren.

There are 11 of us, age thirtysomething to fiftysomething. Where did our fear first get its hold? Toby was held underwater by a sadistic neighbor. Diana watched a cousin drown. Molly almost drowned trying to rescue her daughter. Me? Minor stuff--the occasional dunking, a wave that tugged me seaward.

On the handout I notice that the class title has changed. OK, so we're in Berkeley, but I liked the old title, the way it stood with its feet on the ground. Would I have signed up for 'Miracle Swimming'?

'How many of you have taken swimming classes before?' asks our instructor, whose name is Melon Dash. Five of us raise our hands. 'Those classes started at step 59 or so,' says Melon. 'What we do here are the first 58 steps. If you take these steps you'll learn how to be in control, in your body, quiet inside, comfortable all the time in the water in all parts of the pool.'

The methodology is simple: Stay aware, in your body, at all times. Do only what is comfortable. Go at your own pace. At last Melon says, 'If you are ready, only if you are ready, you can get into the pool.'