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Brave heart

A nonswimmer learns to breathe

No one knows why I can’t swim.

It’s been a mystery to my mostly water-loving family. It has baffled two different lifeguard boyfriends. Two of my closest friends in high school ran a pool management company with their father and they couldn’t figure out why.

I took a kayaking class at a summer youth program – since I still couldn’t swim, I wore a huge orange life jacket and made sure my partner never playfully tipped the boat. I learned the various requirements for and pay scales of positions at the Montgomery County Aquatics Department and even 16 years later can identify by smell if a pool is dirty, or over-chlorinated. My whole social life revolved around water, but for some reason I still can’t swim. Summer after summer at public pools around the Washington, D.C.-Maryland area, a new self-appointed teacher would try to do the impossible: teach me how to swim.

And year after year, the instructor would wring his or her hands and give up, and I would once again accept my fate. Honestly, I’m ashamed that I’m not a strong swimmer. I always find myself on the sidelines when summer comes — while my friends fully indulge in all things water-related, I’m still stuck on the sand, all these years later. The magic of diving boards and deep ends and open oceans and lazy days on a river were all secrets I would never know.

I settled into the water, tried to put fear out of my mind, and surrendered to the pool.

I should mention that it isn’t that I can’t swim – it just that I’m not very good at going underwater. My father remembers trying to teach me how to swim, and 5-year-old me refusing to put my face under the surface. And honestly, that was that. Any “swimming” I do means that my face doesn’t get wet, which is exactly as limiting as it sounds.

I have a modified tread that a friend once termed “a doggy paddle if the dog was on crack,” and I can scoot along similarly in a frog style. I am comfortable with being underwater, as long as I hold my nose closed with my hand.

But I could never seem to coordinate it all together, being underwater without pinching my nose shut, and swimming along using both hands. There was always something wrong and I would find myself panicking and pushing myself back to the safety of the air.

Growing up in the relaxed suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland, the pool was the social center of teen life. Everyone was at the pool, and generally all day long. My babysitting charges stayed at the pool from open to close, often doing little jobs such as scrubbing the tiles in exchange for staying in longer. Other times, I’d camp out for days at the pool, teasing friends and waiting for that summer’s fling to come off shift, mowing through Dean Koontz and Stephen King novels, watching other people swim.

Each summer started, bright with the promise that this year, I would finally learn to swim. One year, a kind neighborhood woman timed me putting my face under the water and blowing bubbles, in hopes that the repeated exposure would translate to learning. One summer, a cute older lifeguard thought repeated immersion would cure me of my fear: He would randomly run at me, and then jump into the water while holding me tightly in his arms before pulling me up. Most of those summer’s memories are of bubbles streaming in front of my face on their way to the surface of the pool. A friend had me crawl along the wall to the deep end while she swam nearby, promising to catch me if I slipped under. I can frog style (with my head above water) across a pool quickly, and even do laps, but I still can’t swim effortlessly in the classic freestyle, meaning above the water, breathing from side to side. Being able to swim is freedom — a confidence that means you can conquer the water. Without that feeling of control, water (especially open water) is too dangerous to ever be fun.

The magic of diving boards and deep ends and open oceans and lazy days on a river were all secrets I would never know.

All of my frustration came to a head when I was invited to California, land of beaches, sun, and waves, for a yearlong fellowship. The fellowship year was ours to plan — friends of mine took classes in everything from design thinking to fencing. I wanted to do awesome things like surf and paddleboard, but not being able to swim was holding me back. I saw a class that was right in my wheelhouse: Fear of Water, a class for overcoming water-based fears. I signed up.

A week later, I had purchased my first wet suit (who knew that most pools in California were outdoor-only?) and came to class. Strangely, I still felt out of place – one of the members of the class was a former competitive swimmer whose father had replaced her natural love of the water with a performance-based fear. Week after week, my classmates progressed, and I still couldn’t master a shallow dive for a penny.

During that same year, I got an unexpected answer to why I always hated putting my face in the water. Out in California, my allergies became so bad I sought medical help. The specialist advised me to wear a nose guard while swimming. As it turns out, no matter how hard I hold my breath, a little bit of water can still leak through, which gives me a slightly terrifying feeling of drowning every time I submerge myself.

Using the recommended noseguard helped, but still felt awkward, and I was afraid of it coming loose. So the swim instructor advised me to just learn to be more comfortable in the water. My last few weeks in the class were dedicated to one, tangible accomplishment – learning to do a back float. The most simple of positions was awkward. I got scared when I sank low, and my body kept moving the wrong way. I was convinced I would sink.

But finally, one day, it came together. With the instructor standing over me, I settled into the water, tried to put fear out of my mind, and surrendered to the pool. Water lapped in my ears and settled there. The world faded to just the sky, the clouds, and the water. I rocked back and forth in the waves of the pool. I was 30 years old, and I had finally managed to float.

I still can’t swim.

But occasionally, when the pool is quiet and when I have some time to myself, I edge toward the water, wondering if I still remember, disbelieving that I ever felt comfortable enough to relax, still fearing I will sink.

Then I take a deep breath, lift my feet off the pool floor, feel that still-strange feeling of water filling my ears, and I breathe.

Latoya Peterson is the Deputy Editor for Digital Innovation at The Undefeated. She is becoming a cyborg, but in the gamer way, not the Terminator way.