Fears Surface, Dry Up Under Go-Easy Guidance : Shrinking the Pool of Adult Non-Swimmers

It happened halfway across the globe more than 30 years ago, but Godofredo Astudillo remembers the incident clearly.

When he was 8 years old, he went to a reservoir near his native Manila with a couple of friends.

As a prank, one of the youngsters pushed him into the water. Astudillo's panicked reaction was ignored. "On the way down, everybody thought I was joking."

When he bobbed back up to the surface, gasping for air, his arms thrashing wildly, somebody pushed him down again. "Only on the third time did they pick me up.

Country Kids, City Kid

"They were country kids and I was a city kid. They didn't know I couldn't swim," explained Astudillo, adding that he "almost drowned."

Now 39 and a Los Angeles resident, Astudillo said: "That fear you carry for the rest of your life."

A poll released last year by the National Park Service found swimming to be the nation's most popular outdoor activity, with 51% of those interviewed saying they had gone swimming in the previous three months.

Yet, a sizable proportion of adults are non-swimmers. Each summer, many non-swimmers decide literally to take the plunge, either for the exercise value, the social benefits, to help their children learn to swim, for the personal challenge or, as with Astudillo, to confront a lifelong fear.

"There are quite a few adults out there who would enjoy being comfortable in the water," said Woody Cox, senior director at the Hollywood YMCA. He said that adults who haven't learned to swim "develop an apprehension of the water."

According to Jeannie McCoy, recreation director of the community services program at East Los Angeles College, most adult beginning swim students "have had a bad experience in the water."

Cox said the typical non-swimming adult who comes to the YMCA has "been in the water a few times as a youth, and then has stayed away."

He contends that virtually anyone can be taught to swim. He said many of the adults who come for lessons are over 40 and recognize the exercise value, but "it is hard to exercise in the water if you don't know how to swim." The pressure to swim is greater in Southern California, he added, where "you're always close to water."

Ralph Olivas, who teaches in the ELAC program, said much of his job involves listening to the apprehensions that students have built up. "It stops them dead in their tracks," he said. "I try to break the fear."

Olivas said he teaches by example, slowly getting his students into deeper water, cautious not to fuel their fears. The key, he said, is to first gain their confidence, then inspire self-confidence in the students.

There are those who "are just completely embarrassed about not being able to swim," Olivas said. "Sometimes they are afraid to talk to me." By teaming them with his best students, he explains, "I build two people: I build confidence in the good person and a beginning in the other person."

It is shortly after 6 p.m. on a warm summer night at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Pool in the Florence area of South-Central Los Angeles. Twenty-one adults have straggled in for one of the free bilingual adult beginning swim lessons offered twice weekly at this county pool, which operates year-round.

Pool manager Dana Payton and lifeguard Federico Ricketts start with a poolside chat. "We line them up with their backs to the pool," Payton explained. "Otherwise they'll be looking at the water and not hear a word you say."

Payton starts with the absolute basics. "Rule No. 1: You can breathe out under water, but you can't breathe in." Nervous laughter comes from the group.

Next comes a sort of aquatic audition. Some do a rough approximation of a swim stroke, kick madly and stop when they have to take a breath. Others dog-paddle. Still others can do little more than walk in the shallow end of the pool.

All have taken an important first step. "Once you get them in the water, they're usually OK," Payton said. "But getting them in is the trick."

The students are sorted into three groups: the beginners, those who need to work on a stroke, those who need to work on a kick.

Ricketts teaches the 10-person beginner group. Nine are women. He starts them off slowly, asking them to put their faces in the water. Most do so, albeit rather tentatively.

Holding Their Breath

Next, they try holding their breath under water. To reinforce the feeling of security, they hold hands in a circle at the shallow end of the pool. First, they submerge as a group for a couple of seconds. Then they take turns going to the middle of the circle and holding their breath under water for as long as they can while the group counts.

It creates a healthy combination of security and competitiveness, says the instructor. An 11th person, a woman who has watched the beginning of the lesson warily from the deck, finally joins in, but can't bring herself to go under water when her turn comes.

Patricia Cail, 35, went 10 years without setting foot in a pool, but her five children, the three oldest of whom know how to swim, prompted her to take lessons. In fact, she credits her son, Virgil, who was 8 at the time, with teaching her the basics of swimming several years ago. She vows to "keep coming until I get the hang of it."

Tracy Colby, 21, confessed to being "a little afraid and excited" about coming for a swim lesson. She has bad memories about an incident that occurred at Lake Elsinore several years ago: "I almost drowned. Since then, I don't swim in lakes," she said.

'It Was the Heat'

Although her reason for taking lessons ("I guess it was the heat") does not seem unusual, her goal is: "I want to jump off that high tower," she said, pointing toward the three-meter diving board at the deep end of the pool.

Mack Carter, 23 and the only male in the beginning group, smiled when asked if he thought it was harder for a man to admit he couldn't swim. "If it wasn't for my wife, I wouldn't be here," he said.

His wife, Melinda Young-Carter, 22, was also in the beginning group. She remembers going to a pool when she was 10: She slipped getting in, was momentarily stunned and swallowed some water, she said. She went in a pool exactly once, and very cautiously at that, in all the years since--until last week.

At the Hollywood YMCA, the beginning adult swim classes are filled to capacity, about 15 people each. Cox believes that the Hollywood YMCA's 3 1/2-foot-deep training pool helps many adults overcome their fear. "If you teach someone in the ocean, it's a very foreign and scary element. Even a normal pool is going to seem deep and chilly." Conversely, the training pool, which is heated to 90 degrees, "is like a bathtub."

Sarkis Keshishyan is pool manager and adult swim teacher at the Hollywood YMCA. Most of his students are learning to swim from scratch. They meet for an hour twice weekly.

He said it takes about the same amount of time to teach adults to be proficient swimmers as children. Whereas children may be more willing to do whatever the instructor says, adults are easier to communicate with.

Body-Type Differences

Keshishyan finds that people have problems in the water based on body type. Muscular people have difficulty floating; overweight people have problems going underwater, he said.

One of the students he said falls into the first category is Hubert Braddock, 30, of Hollywood. Growing up in the suburbs of Washington, Braddock said he tried to learn swimming but "sort of gave it up." When he signed up for classes at the YMCA, he said he had a rudimentary swim stroke but "no structure, no form."

"I thought it was ridiculous to live in Southern California and not learn how to swim," said Braddock, an aspiring actor.

Elizabeth Park, 31, of Los Angeles, said the lessons are the "first in-water experience for me."

Her two sons are entering their third year of swim lessons at the YMCA. Her husband, who also swims, suggested she take lessons. "It's so embarrassing," she said. "My son will ask, 'Mommie, are you still scared?' "

'Don't Think About It'

Park admitted to being frightened during her first lesson. She found it difficult to get in the pool, much less hold her breath underwater. "Sarkis told me, 'Don't think about it,' " she recalled.

Now she is able to swim the length of the training pool, but is still afraid of swimming in deep water. "I'm afraid I'll sink," she said.

Christine Brent of Hollywood decided to learn to swim in her 64th year. She had never taken a lesson before last month. "I always wanted to do it, but didn't have the time."

Now, with her family grown, she has the time. "It's a personal challenge," she said, noting that her three children and five grandchildren all swim.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World