One in five Americans say they can’t swim, according to the Red Cross. The next level up (barely swim?) is where I was. I had never had lessons but taught myself to float, tread water, backstroke, and manage a couple of weak freestyle strokes.
For some reason, it’s embarrassing to not swim, almost up there with not being able to ride a bike or drive a car. Maybe it’s the surprise that was the usual reaction to my confession of ineptness in the water.
My family never went to the beach or a pool because my dad feared water after he fell through the ice and almost drowned as a kid. In grade school I wanted to learn to swim at the YMCA, but my parents listened to the nuns who said that Catholics shouldn’t patronize a so-called Protestant organization.
But why blame the nuns and my parents when I’d had a half-century on my own to learn? Swimming never seemed like a pressing need, however. I hoped that my limited skills would keep me from drowning in any water I was likely to be around.
Why the impulse arose to sign up for a swimming class at age 73 is a mystery. Our building has an outdoor pool, but I lived here nine years before thinking about swimming lessons. I don’t expect to swim laps for fitness. Even if I were to become capable — a long shot — the pool isn’t open two-thirds of the year. I can’t see myself getting on a bus in the winter to go to a pool.
Strictly speaking, then, I didn’t have much reason for swimming lessons, but I signed up for a seven-session Chicago Park District class this spring without thinking twice about it.
Five of us gathered in March for the first one-hour lesson at the Fosco Park pool in University Village. Since I had at least 30 years on the other four, I expected to be the worst student. Our instructor, Alex, reassured me that one is never too old to swim.
Alex began by asking our goals. I didn’t realize I had a goal until “To swim one lap” popped out of my mouth. Since one lap could mean our building pool’s 13-yard length and not Fosco’s 25 yards, perhaps that was realistic.
That first session, Alex taught us proper breathing underwater (through the nose), correct body position (level), and flutter kicking (small and fast). “Keep your legs up; kick from the hips,” Alex coached as we flutter kicked up and down the pool holding a kickboard. I returned home exhausted. The next lesson added streamlining (gliding with hands overlapped above our heads), treading water, and back floating.
Ricardo, our new teacher after Alex was transferred to another pool, started every lesson with a warmup of flutter kicking to develop stamina. It was disheartening to discover how little endurance I had in water. Apparently averaging about 10,000 steps a day is not adequate conditioning for swimming. Stamina in water is different from stamina on land, Ricardo explained.
Breaking down the parts of the front crawl, or freestyle, and the backstroke, Ricardo taught us to stroke, using one arm and then both arms, at the edge of the pool and then holding pool noodles. He added flutter kicking and, for the front crawl, side breathing. We then put all the pieces together but still used noodles for support. Starting by kicking off the wall and streamlining, we gradually increased our distance on both our backs and our fronts. Reminding us to keep our legs up and to look down when doing the front crawl, Ricardo said the body “is like a teeter-totter in the water; if the head goes up, the legs go down. You start to sink.”
I had no trouble with the backstroke, probably because I could breathe normally with my face out of the water, but the front crawl was still a problem. When Ricardo had us toss the noodles and swim freestyle half the length of the pool, I did it but was out of breath, and I couldn’t meet his next challenge of swimming the full length. I felt discouraged that I was where I’d started — I could do a backstroke but tired right away with the front crawl. I didn’t know whether to fault my breathing, strokes, endurance, or all three, but I reminded myself that when I took up running, I didn’t jog two miles immediately, and I was in my 20s then.
By that point, I had learned that there was another reason to achieve the 25-yard swim besides my goal of swimming one lap. It is the last of the Red Cross’s basic water safety competencies that I needed. I watched videos for tips on technique and went to a CPD open swim once a week to build stamina. But the goal still didn’t seem within reach in the seventh and last class when I stopped several yards short every time Ricardo told us to swim the front crawl the full length of the pool.
With a minute left in that final class, Ricardo had us do one last freestyle swim. I was flagging as usual but determined to keep going. When my hand touched the wall, I shouted, “I did it!” Ricardo and the other two students — there were only three of us stalwarts left — cheered. It wasn’t easy, but I can work on endurance in our building’s pool this summer, hoping that my neighbors aren’t watching.
I don’t expect to build up enough endurance, however, to swim for exercise. According to fitness websites, aerobic swimming begins at 500 yards — 20 times my hard-earned distance. I doubt that I will progress that far, and it’s okay. I’m happy to have met the Red Cross’s safety standard, and I’ll always have walking, for exercise and transportation.
The swim class upended my notion of how fit I am, and I’ve adjusted my expectations to my age. Another need is pressing. My joints are creaky when I get up from bed. Why did I stop doing yoga? Not sure, but it’s time to resume.