Swimming lessons help adults overcome fears, embarrassment
Just the thought of having her face completely underwater sent shivers of panic through Tami Kitsmiller’s chest.
Despite her fear, Kitsmiller and her husband, Paul, decided earlier this year to become scuba divers and take a trip to Cozumel, Mexico, in 2017.
It didn’t make sense, except that Cozumel is gorgeous and scuba diving in its crystal blue waters is on her bucket list. Actually, “my husband didn’t realized how bad I freak out” when it came to water and swimming, said Kitsmiller, 57, business office administrator for Edward Jones Investments in Grand Junction.
It was embarrassing, so she hid it as best she could by floating on her back and always staying where she could touch the bottom of a pool or lake.
But with a trip to Cozumel floating before her, Kitsmiller took action. She got online, discovered that adult swimming lessons are offered through the city of Grand Junction’s Parks and Recreation Department’s aquatics program, and she signed up.
Then she smothered her anxiety and made herself go to the pool.
A person is 88 percent less likely to be in a fatal drowning incident if he or she has had swimming lessons, and that’s across the board on age, said Pete Ashman, recreation coordinator for the Parks and Recreation Department, citing research from Ellis & Associates, aquatic safety and risk management consultants.
The “traditionally accepted wisdom” is that if children don’t learn to swim by 8 or 9, the chances are significantly high that they won’t ever learn, said Ashman, who sticks by those ages based on what he has seen as a swimming instructor and supervisor of instructors.
But “just like so many other things, it’s never too late to start,” he said.
“I think the oldest I’ve ever taught was 86,” said Mindy Barfield, office manager and swim instructor with AquaMobile (aquamobileswim.com), a national company with traveling instructors who teach clients in the clients’ pool of choice, and has clients in the Grand Junction area.
And not letting age dictate a decision to learn to swim is important given that “there are more than 18 million swimming pools and hot tubs in the USA. Yet according to the Centers for Disease Control, 37 percent of American adults cannot swim the length of a pool. Every day, about 10 people die from drowning. The majority of unintentional drowning victims are adults,” according to U.S. Masters Swimming at usms.org.
Most every adult knows deep down that learning to swim is important, but years of fear aren’t always rationally subdued.
Plenty of adults experienced the sink-or-swim treatment as kids — they were taken to a lake and thrown off the dock — which does little to instruct or reduce fear, Ashman said.
“Then to overcome that fear later in life is an impressive feat,” he said.
For Kitsmiller, fright of water and swimming had taken hold before she took lessons at age 7 or 8 at Lincoln Park-Moyer Swimming Pool. She doesn’t know where it came from — perhaps it was because her mother was deathly afraid of swimming — but her childhood self found the lessons “scary as heck. I thought I was going to drown all the time.” She learned to float on her back and not much else.
When she was 16, peer pressure put her on a bridge jumping into a canal, but then she once missed the rope she and friends used to pull themselves out of the canal. Her boyfriend had to jump in after her.
“I had no business doing that,” Kitsmiller said.
Over the years, “I learned not to go out very far” in any water, she said. It wasn’t until the scuba-diving vacation plans were hatched that she allowed the nagging thoughts about learning to swim have their way.
While determined, she was all nerves as she walked into the humid, chlorine-scented Orchard Mesa Swimming Pool for her first her lesson on an August evening with instructor Brooke Ferrell.
Ferrell did her best to make Kitsmiller feel more at ease, asking what she could do or was comfortable doing.
“I take each person as an individual and teach them as they want to be taught,” said Ferrell, 18, who has been swimming competitively since she was 7.
Ferrell was “adorable” and very patient, Kitsmiller said. But during that lesson, and for a few lessons afterward, Kitsmiller couldn’t swim a yard without standing up and trembling with anxiety.
There was one other student at that first lesson, a man who said he hadn’t been in the water since he was a kid and was involved in a near-drowning incident.
After the first lesson, he didn’t come back. “I felt for him,” Kitsmiller said.
That said, the drop-out rate for adult swimming classes is very low, Ashman said.
“They recognized a hole in their lives,” he said. “They are very motivated.”
“I taught a gal who was afraid to get into the water,” Ashman said. Just getting her into the pool area was a big deal.
“You have to put yourself into a vulnerable place as an adult,” he said.
Grownups learn to swim the same way kids do, but adults “logically know it’s a mental hurdle instead of a physical one,” Ashman said.
Adults “are far more intelligent about the risks ...you can really think about what can happen,” Barfield said.
Adults aren’t forced to take lessons, so they sign up for a variety of reasons in addition to conquering fear, both Ashman and Barfield said.
Parents want to swim with their kids and are tired of hanging out next to the pool or lake.
They have a boat, but they can’t swim and want to be able to help their kids if something were to happen.
They bought a house with a pool and need to know how to swim or want to swim better. They want to lose weight.
Some students already know how to swim and a more efficient stroke or faster triathlon time.
Because of the variety of needs of students in the city’s adult swimming classes the class size is usually low, and “that class for me is one I like to keep an eye on,” Ashman said.
“Come to us where you are and we’ll meet you there,” he said.
“There is no shame in saying, ‘I’m tired,’ or ‘I’m afraid of putting my face in the water,’” Barfield said. “Adults are really hard on themselves.”
“Seventy-five percent of swimming is relaxation. The more tense we are, the more we think,” Barfield said.
To help Kitsmiller relax, Ferrell explained how to modify strokes if there is a moment of panic. The freestyle or crawl stroke make Kitsmiller the most nervous, because her face is completely in the water and she’s still putting together when she’s supposed to take a breath. So Ferrell showed Kitsmiller how to roll to her side for a side stroke or onto her back for a backstroke with a frog kick. “It’s a recovery stroke ... she can roll over and do that and it can calm her down,” Ferrell said.
Little by little and over several months, Kitsmiller became more comfortable with the water. She finally knows that swimming can feel good and, as a side benefit, her fitness has improved. She even convinced her husband to sign up for a session of lessons.
Learning to swim is an accomplishment and has made her feel stronger as a person, she said.
“If someone dunked me in a pool I wouldn’t come up crying,” Kitsmiller said with a laugh.