Pushing past his lifelong fear, writer learns to swim
"Even in my late 30s, I still believe that my body is made differently than other people's, that in place of the mysterious buoy that seems to make floating and swimming so easy for everybody else, there is dead weight."
Learn to swimTo sign up for swimming lessons through Seattle Parks and Recreation, call 206-684-4075
or go to https://class.seattle.gov/parks. Click on "Programs" and select "Aquatics."
THE SHALLOW end of the pool at Green Lake Community Center is only three feet deep, but I'm up to my nose in fear.
For as long as I can remember, I've been afraid of going in the water. Even completely submerging my body in a bathtub filled me with thoughts of drowning.
My terror lurks someplace deep.
Even in my late 30s, I still believe that my body is made differently than other people's, that in place of the mysterious buoy that seems to make floating and swimming so easy for everybody else, there is dead weight.
Now, I am in a real sink-or-swim situation at my first-ever swimming lesson — my attempt to kick this phobia once and for all.
Instructor David Belanger wants to assess my skill level, so he asks me to show him what I can already do.
Maybe out of misplaced macho pride, I don't let on that I'm freaking out.
" 'Go on, big guy,' " I goad myself. " 'Show him,' "
I tighten my goggles, squeeze my eyes shut and try to visualize my way through my unspoken fear.
I am Mark Spitz smashing the record in the 100-meter freestyle in Munich and doing fierce strokes on the cover of Time magazine.
I am Cullen Jones aiding his relay team to victory in Beijing and challenging the notion that African Americans like him (and me) don't swim.
How hard can it really be?
As this inner dialogue goes on, I just stand there frozen. All of those Olympian delusions are soon swamped in an emotional tide.
"Hold on — I just need another second," I say, not knowing if it's true.
I close my eyes again, fill my lungs and puff out my cheeks as if they are pontoons.
I throw myself into position, swinging my arms forward and back in a fool's pantomime of swimming.
Water fills my mouth. The feeling is like drinking a giant glass of water from inside the glass. The sense of helplessness — and suffocating smallness — is utterly disorienting and demoralizing.
I grasp for something familiar to rescue me from the engulfing foreignness of the water. The tips of my toes seek out the reassuring solidity of the pool's floor, and my hands reach above the surface in search of a safety rope that never materializes.
The pool feels like my enemy. Or maybe I'm the pool's.
Somehow, I get my footing and stand up. Dripping, I wade back to the edge and lean against the wall, huffing like a boxer after the bell.
Belanger looks at me with beatific calm.
"OK," he says finally. "Let's start from the beginning."
WHEN I WAS 9, I decided to get baptized at my family's church in Kentucky.
It was a perfect Easter Sunday morning, and the pews overflowed with old ladies in big-brimmed hats cooling themselves with Mahalia Jackson fans. The red-velvet curtains behind the pulpit were drawn to reveal an alcove with a small baptismal pool about 3 feet deep.
I stepped nervously to the edge of the pool, where the Rev. Jones was already waiting.
Even before he reached out his big hands to lower me into the pool with him — praying aloud in a baritone so subterranean it made frail grandmas throw their hands in the air and shout hallelujah — I was terrified.
As my body lowered into the cold water, I felt another kind of chill come over me, an unfathomable despair. I was sure I'd drown.
Jones held my back for support and gently sank me backward. I tried not to flinch as the first streams of water rushed into my ears and then my nose. But I jerked my head out of the reverend's palm, threw my own hands up and gasped so loudly that some in the pews stopped fanning themselves.
Still praying, Jones carefully lifted my torso until I was upright again. I stood there panting and heaving like I'd just been chased by the devil.
I was never again able to submerge myself in water — until now.
Perhaps sensing my distress, Belanger explains some fundamentals. Every swimmer has what's called a natural buoyancy, he tells me with a touch of poetry. No matter how much you weigh on land, he says, everybody weighs about 10 pounds in the water. As long as there's air in your lungs, you'll float.
"The water will hold you up — you just have to have faith," he says with a grin.
To test his theory — I call it that because I really don't believe him — Belanger says he wants me to do a "dead-man's float," a position that requires me to lie motionless facedown in the water, my arms outstretched but loose, like William Holden floating in a Hollywood pool at the opening of the film "Sunset Boulevard."
Belanger tells me to place my palms flat against the pool ledge for support, stretch out my body and lower my head below the surface. He goes first to show me how it's done.
My mind flows between fight and flight. For a second, I consider quitting the class. Then I remember what Belanger said: The water will hold me up.
I hold my breath, put my hands on the ledge, stretch out my legs and slowly, agonizingly, lower my face into the 80-degree water. I'm so scared that the water makes the skin on my face tingle as it rises past my mouth and nose, then my ears, then my head. The chlorine stings my nostrils as the water pours in. Everything is a gurgle to my waterlogged ears.
Even with goggles on I keep my eyes closed. But as the shock eases, I feel a subtle lift, a buttressing weightlessness.
Suddenly I realize that the water has been a dispassionate witness to my struggle with it. Nobody's throwing punches but me.
I keep my head under for a good 15 or 20 seconds, letting confidence soak into my skin.
After I make a few successful tries, Belanger ups the ante and asks me to do the same thing but, this time, let go of the ledge.
My body is still trying to take the water's measure. Can I really trust it to support me without something, or someone, to latch onto?
Haltingly, I lift my hands from the ledge, and I finally understand the transcendent effect of being in the water.
"I'm floating," I tell myself. "So this is what it's like."
At the next class, Belanger adds a new challenge. He glides on his belly about 20 feet down the pool lane, stands up and holds his hands upright against the water's surface.
"I want you to come out the way I did and tap my hands," he says.
"So ... you want me to swim all the way to you, right?" I say, with nervous obviousness.
The distance might as well be a mile.
I push off the wall with as much force as I can muster and glide a few feet, kicking to keep up my momentum. I'm so busy keeping track of all the things I need my body to do that I forget to fret.
At one point, I realize that my eyes have been closed the whole time. Impulsively, I open them and a turquoise world opens up. I can see Belanger's legs in the water and his hands right in front of me.
I made it.
The British writer Sarfaz Manzoor remembers learning to float as "a moment of indescribable joy, like learning I could fly."
For me, the experience is both more magical and more real than flying.
"I'm actually swimming!" I think dreamily as I tap the instructor's hands. I keep my head under the surface just a second longer than I need to in order to make sure this is really happening.
"SWIMMING REPRESENTS the possible and the impossible," former ABC News correspondent Lynn Sherr says in her new book, "Swim: Why We Love the Water," her meditation on "the timeless enchantment of being in the water."
"It's an obsession that cracks the glass surface of life, a river that gets you to places you only imagined," she writes. "Learning to swim is a parable of survival."
The unfortunate fact, however, is that some people never learn to swim, putting themselves at unnecessary risk any time they go near the water. This is especially true for people of color like myself. Up to 70 percent of black children and nearly 60 percent of Latino children have little or no swimming skill, compared to 40 percent of whites, according to one study. Drowning rates are higher for minorities, as well.
To combat the problem, Seattle Parks and Recreation has developed outreach programs and inexpensive classes at its neighborhood pools to encourage people of color, and all ages and backgrounds, to learn basic swimming skills.
It has taken awhile for the masses to embrace swimming as a leisure activity rather than just a lifesaving skill.
In Charles Sprawson's "Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero," the author notes that for centuries, swimming was not a popular pastime but, rather, a pursuit enjoyed mainly by a certain strain of the aristocracy.
"Only those able to rise above popular superstition felt free to enter the water," he writes of swimming in England. "Those who did were considered eccentric."
Today swimming is a rite of passage for kids and a signifier of good living and health for grown-ups.
And for some, like Olympic gold medalist Tommy Hannan, swimming is a kind of high art.
Hannan was 18 months old when his mom took him to his first swimming class at a YMCA "diaper dip" in Baltimore. He was so eager to learn that he jumped into the pool before the class had even begun.
"I've always just been comfortable in the water, and the idea of drowning is surreal to me — I just can't contemplate it," Hannan tells me one day when I visit him at a pool to watch him swim.
Hannan's affinity for the water paid off when he and his 400-meter medley relay team won gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Now Hannan, 32, devotes much of his time to coaching competitive swimmers, including some Olympic hopefuls, for the KING Aquatic Club.
He's still a picture of grace and power in the pool. As he flips and pushes off a floating barrier and streaks down the lane, I can feel the barrier rock from the force of his kick. Back and forth he goes in a mesmerizing pingpong of quick underwater laps. Minutes later, he launches out again, but with a rope attached to his waist that connects to a bucket-full of dumbbells that rises and falls on a pulley at the pool's edge.
He's barely winded.
"Great swimmers have a balance," he explains during an impromptu tutorial. "They use their buoyancy in the water to kind of not use a lot of energy."
Besides, he says, "When you're just powering and splashing, it's not pretty."
I resemble that remark.
At its best, "swimming is like a ballet," Hannan says. "It's beautiful."
When 18 of his chattering swimmers arrive, I get to see what he means.
They all jump in, nine streaming left to right along the surface and nine others gliding a few feet below at a perpendicular angle — a visually stunning crosshatch of athleticism.
It's an amazing trick to look as if we were made to live in water. As I watch, I imagine it will be altogether more wonderful to feel that way, too.
AT EACH lesson, I can look a few lanes to my right and take inspiration from Michael Pace as he swims laps in his wet suit.
A 61-year-old accountant, Pace started taking beginner's lessons at Green Lake only 10 years ago after a friend who noticed his poor technique recommended it for safety reasons.
Since then he's been an unofficial mentor to others at the pool. He's seen newbies come and go, so he understands the anxiety and skepticism that accompany most beginners into the water.
"There's a bunch of times where people think, 'I can't do that,' " he says one day at his home near Green Lake. "But you have to try."
"What does it take to become reasonably good?" he says. "Perseverance."
Back at class, Belanger sees how hard I'm working just to perform a classic crawl stroke. The idea is to make your body as streamlined as possible, rotating the shoulders and hips just so with each thrust of one outstretched arm as the other pulls water backward. I have to remember to take it easy and, in a strange way, surrender to the experience.
Another of my instructors at Green Lake, Doug Oaksford, uses all sorts of funny analogies to help me visualize different techniques.
"I always tell kids to think of the pool as a big bowl of ice cream; the idea is to scoop back as much of it as possible" to gain forward momentum, he says one day as I struggle with my arm movements.
To help me float on my back more easily, he tells me to imagine that a string attached to my belly button is pulling my torso upward as I drift. The tip works.
"It's very Zen," Oaksford says. "But it's not normal — you're trying to feel comfortable in a hostile environment."
Still, just the thought of doing something like swim to the deep end of the pool — 12 feet — and not be able to keep my head above water gives me shivers.
I'm swimming but I don't yet feel like a swimmer.
One day after class, I try again to swim while practicing breathing. I tilt my head sideways out of the pool and try to inhale quickly, but my mouth floods with water and I start to cough. I still don't trust the water enough. Or maybe I don't trust myself.
It will take time. Things that once seemed impossible will start to feel elementary.
Pace says his breathing was so bad that it took him two years to be able to swim one length of the pool.
One of the swimmers he's mentored, 71-year-old Susan "Kelly" Riley, says she also started swimming at Green Lake pool about a decade ago and had a rocky start, but she's been in a "wonderful haze" ever since learning.
She swims for fitness and fun but also to practice "grace," sometimes listening to music while doing laps to relax.
In her first lessons, she was haunted by a fear of drowning, like me. Now, she says, "I'm just sort of one with the water."
I wade back to the pool's ledge but don't touch it. Instead I kick up my legs and practice floating on my back. I aim my chin upward until I can see the banners hanging above the pool behind me. I arch my back and imagine that string pulling me toward the ceiling, but my midsection and legs want to sink.
I give myself a break and don't worry about screwing up.
I close my eyes, let go of my body and just drift on the surface, and I take solace in the thought that once I get the hang of swimming, I won't feel as if I need the good Lord to save me.
I can save myself.
Tyrone Beason is a Pacific NW staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.