When I was a child growing up in Fort William, Ont. (now part of Thunder Bay, where I still live), my parents signed me up for swimming lessons at the local YMCA, but I skipped them because I was terrified of getting in the water. For some reason, the large number of people in the pool, and the instructor walking along the edge with a pole for us to grab if we got tired, made me so uncomfortable. Later, I tried adult learn-to-swim classes, but stuck to the shallow end. I learned to put my head under water, but not much else.
But as I came up to my 55th birthday, I decided I wanted to be free of my fear of the deep end. So I signed up for semi-private lessons with a swimming instructor (whom I came to call my ‘water therapist’). While I was taking lessons, I was also coordinating a summer aqua-aerobics class for older adults as part of my job as a community recreation programmer. I didn’t participate, but the people in that class really impressed me; they could tread water effortlessly and attended the program faithfully. I was inspired by their ‘aqua-batics,’ and decided that on my 55th birthday I would swim two laps of the pool.
I committed to my goal by declaring it on the party invitations I sent out two weeks ahead of my birthday. Then it dawned on me: Two laps equals four lengths. But I had made my goal public; there was no going back. So I started a training regimen.
At one of the lessons, the instructor dropped a hair elastic in the deep end and asked me to retrieve it. The first few times I tried, I couldn’t bring myself to go all the way to the bottom. Finally, I did it: I picked up that hair elastic, and’lo and behold’I survived! It was a real epiphany. From that moment on, I relaxed. I started to practise swimming laps, doing a modified breaststroke and backstroke.
The big day arrived. I donned a retro floral bathing cap’which was an early birthday present’and slipped into the pool. Friends, family members, co-workers, lifeguards and aqua-aerobics participants cheered me on from the pool deck and held up signs. Friends walked along the edge offering encouragement as if I were a marathon runner. When I finally finished the four lengths, they gave me a decorated vintage life jacket in celebration of my accomplishment.
My 55th birthday swim will never make the record books, but in my life’s story it ranks as one of the most memorable chapters. Today, I try to get to the Athletic Club pool in Thunder Bay a couple of times a week. We go to a lake every summer, where I can do the backstroke while gazing at the clouds. And I’m signing up for additional lessons, too.
Since that memorable day in the pool, I’ve had many people tell me that they would like to learn to swim or overcome a fear of water. I reassure them that they, too, can enjoy swimming. And I advise them that when they do learn, they should gather up their cheering section and celebrate with a pool party!