Submerged in Embarrassment: A Swimming Instructor’s Fear of the Pool

The industrial fans hummed over the shimmering blue waters, while the coral and navy triangular flags that signified the 5 meter mark gently throbbed in the artificial air. Water spots clung to the metallic aquatic rails; steps that led to a world void of oxygen. That was the world that threatened my existence. In the murky depths that constricted my muscles and deflated my lungs is where I was certain I would find my demise. The prelusive feeling I always had before touching my toes to the pool water made it clear – my feet were meant for hard ground. I was a terrestrial being that lacked fins. And even though I knew others shared my fears, I felt all alone in my phobia of water.

The children, in their dark blue swimsuits and colorful goggles, hopped in gleefully as they unloaded from the locker room. Smiles on their faces as they submerged themselves in liquid joy. Little did they know that the instructor who’s job it was to help them improve and lessen their own fears of the water secretly harbored trepidations of his own. I communicated continually about how I was learning how to swim along with them, but despite the admission, you could tell that they thought my words were designed to alleviate their concerns. Comforting, yes. Facetious, no. They were the truth. I was a terrible swimmer.

For as long as I can remember, water has not been my friend. While not technically speaking my enemy, there exists a distance between us. I grew up in North Philadelphia where pools were uncommon, and on the rare occasion I could find one, it was so heavily chlorinated I needn’t bathe for a week – an excuse I told my mother repeatedly. “I don’t need to take a bath, mom. I went to the pool two weeks ago.”

But the lack of understanding between Senior Swimming Pool and I has divided us. The air I breathe on land is a given. Maybe my comfort was in the fact that I didn’t need to think about breathing. Breathing on land was not a conscious process. Breathing in water took concentrated force of which my stamina was minimally prepared. The best I could hope for was a few struggled gasps for air while I attempted a crawl stroke – that’s freestyle for the layperson. Heck! I couldn’t even make it the full length of the pool. I usually reverted to side stroke midway down the lane. And my lack of confidence was not helped by our aquatics director.

He had been an Olympic hopeful. I will not give you his name or details but his credentials were impressive. He had swam competitively at one of the most prestigious universities in the US, and the world, and had made the Olympic qualifiers in 1986. In the same year that he was competing against the best of the best in the 100 meter butterfly in hopes of a shot at Olympic Gold, my mother, Janet McShain was pushing me out of the last “watery” body in which I’d ever be relaxed… her womb.

Now this may seem a sad song so far but in summation it has a happy ending. After a long school year of tutelage, practice, and determination, I am still not anywhere close to the graceful tower of ‘Swimaptitude’ that is my aquatics director…

Strong and Confident!
This is my Aquatics Director when he swims…

But at least I’m in the water.

And this is me.