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First Person

Mind over water

How I finally learned to swim at 57

By Delia Cabe

As I was walking out of my gym last fall, a woman in the reception area invited me to spin a prize wheel. The flapper click-click-clicked along the pins, passing a personal training session, a restaurant gift certificate, a water bottle. When the wheel halted, I’d won a private swimming lesson.

I gasped, partly out of delight — I’d won something! — but more out of fear. I was 57 years old, and I didn’t know how to swim.

Every adult who never learned to swim has a back story, lined with fear. Mine contains a father who submerged my head in the bath at age 3; terrible eyesight that kept me from seeing the edge of the pool; counselors at a Catholic boarding school camp who tossed me into the deep end. I grew up petrified of any water deeper than my bathtub. I dreamed of losing my Coke-bottle glasses and getting stuck in the ocean.

In middle age, cataract surgery gave me nearly perfect vision in my left eye — and changed my world. When my eye doctor removed the patch, I blinked once, then cried.

A year later, that prize wheel spun.

Yet for months, my prize went unclaimed. My husband, my personal trainer, and the gym receptionist all asked me at intervals, “Are you going to do it?” But I figured that not knowing how to swim hadn’t blocked me from living my life. Or had it? I felt embarrassed; I hated that my fear and my past had shadowed me for so long. Swimming wasn’t quite what I was missing. I was missing a part of myself.

So I finally scheduled a lesson for a Friday at noon. I arrived with goggles and a pink swim cap, looking the part of a confident swimmer-to-be.

But once I reached the L-shaped pool, my confidence disappeared. Breathing in the humid air, I watched a couple of toddlers in the shallow end and two adults swimming laps in the lanes. Nikki, a young instructor with black hair tied in a bun, invited me into the 3-foot section of the pool. She acted casual, like a friend asking me to sit down for coffee. Out of nervousness, I blurted my history. Nikki nodded, smiled, and reassured me that we wouldn’t go in any water over my head until I was ready.

Two toddlers drifted by and stared, their tiny biceps hidden by pink water wings. What were they thinking of this woman, barely capable of staying afloat?

Then she had me lean backwards, into her waiting hands. I held my breath as the water slowly met my back. After a minute, she pulled away so gently that for a moment it seemed as if her hands were supporting me, yet weren’t, all at the same time.

I was floating.

And then I wasn’t.

The laws of physics, specifically Archimedes’ Principle, explain why I should have been able to float. Objects less dense than the volume of water they displace — i.e., my body — are pushed to the surface by the upward force of that water. That’s the definition of buoyancy. But other factors came into play, beyond mere science.

Take mind over water. I’d read that just knowing the bottom of the pool was within reach — so that I could easily stand with my head above water — could distract a would-be floater enough to interrupt the process. Tense muscles could sink me. Body fat and lung capacity may not have worked in my favor either.

Whatever the reason, my body and mind were defying Archimedes. I folded like a clam shell, my butt drifting down. My flailing legs raced to find the pool bottom. I scrambled to stand up. More floating, more sinking, more worries about inhaling water, about sinking like a rock, about water clogging my eyes and ears, about keeping my head above water. About failing. I monitored what every part of my body was and wasn’t doing, and where the water covered me. Nikki’s encouraging words reached me through my thrashing and coughing. She wouldn’t let me drown. She helped me find my way through the water, acclimate to it.

We tried again and again until I was floating on my back, gazing at the white corrugated ceiling with its crisscrossing pipes, feeling the water lap softly at my covered ears. Clarity. Calm washed over me, instead of thoughts of drowning. “I did it!” I yelped, grinning from pink-encased ear to ear.

Next, Nikki handed me a kickboard. As I gripped it, my legs flapped like warped scissor blades, leaving a foamy wake. Back and forth across the pool I went, a distance no more than 15 feet. When my legs propelled me nowhere, Nikki tugged the kickboard along. The two toddlers drifted by and stared, their tiny biceps hidden by pink water wings, their feet paddling like ducklings. What were they thinking of this woman, barely capable of staying afloat while they were doing it so blithely? I smiled at them. They stared some more.

Then Nikki handed me a large foam dumbbell and instructed me to dip the lower half of my face in and blow bubbles while kicking my legs. Cough. Snort. Gag. Washout. “That’s OK,” she said. I made another attempt. That feeling of choking, of almost drowning, but not quite. How is it I started life in the watery safety of the womb, and once of this world, I navigated from water altogether?

That was the secret to swimming, it turned out: Giving up that frenzied navigation, escaping from my thoughts, returning to instinct. An hour went by that afternoon, and with each pass and clumsy stroke, my trepidation began to rinse away. Out of breath, I marveled that I had crossed 15 feet of water, albeit 3 feet deep. My pace may have been slow, my course crooked, but I was beginning to have fun, even feeling joy. Deep inside me, I yearned for what those toddlers had: a sense of weightlessness, of being unafraid and carefree. No more self-monitoring. I was letting go and getting there.

I had waited almost a lifetime for these sensations. I scheduled another lesson.

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Delia Cabe is a writer based in Boston and the author of Storied Bars of New York.

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