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To face his fears, a father dives into the deep end

“First,” he says, “we’re going to float.”

Float? Doesn’t he know I’m terrified? I’ve never been able to float; I sink in water like a bag full of barbells.

The tall, tattooed black man standing before me in his swimming pool has no patience for excuses. Our bodies, he says, are remarkably light. Our lungs are like life jackets. He lies back. Sure enough, he floats.

“Your turn,” he says.

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I hesitate. The hair stands on the back of my neck. Trying to keep calm, I lie back — but the next few seconds feel like forever. Water washes over my shoulders.

My muscles tighten, my arms feel like logs and my legs meekly flutter. My face drops beneath the surface and warm, salty water streams down my mouth, which is locked open in hard effort. I twist toward the bottom.

Conrad Cooper, water still dripping from his ever-present hoop earring, neither laughs nor frowns. He and his six students — five women and me, all in our 30s and 40s — are in the shallow end of his pool in South Los Angeles. It’s a Monday evening, the first of five straight nights of lessons.

He is known as the Swim Whisperer. And he takes all comers.

::

Swimming suffers from a lack of diversity. A recent study showed that roughly 70% of African American and 60% of Latino children have little or no swimming ability, numbers reflecting their parents’ lack of skill.

But Cooper’s kidney-shaped saltwater pool — lined by bamboo and palm trees — is typically full of diversity: blacks and Latinos from the Crenshaw area, devout Jews from Mid-City, and Asian families from the San Fernando Valley. Famous actors and musicians bring their kids here. So do plumbers.

He mainly teaches kids, but offers night classes for adults, especially hard cases like me. He tries to get you comfortable in water and adept enough at basics like treading water and the crawl stroke to enjoy it.

I paid $200 for my lessons. I wanted them because of my son, Ashe, who will soon be 2. I hope to help him learn to swim next summer. I certainly don’t want to pass along my fears.

It’s silly to be afraid of water, right? Right.

“Don’t worry,” Cooper says, watching me wring my hands. “By Friday, you’re going to be feeling a whole lot better about this. You’re actually going to enjoy yourself.”

In college, I was an athlete. At 45, I’m still in good shape — but none of that matters now because, try as I might to mask it, I’m as scared as I’ve ever been.

I try again to float.

Cooper holds me up with a steady hand.

“I can do this,” I say.

He lets go.

I sink.

Teach me to swim? Can’t be done.

Cooper asks us why we’re afraid.

As kids, Toni, Cathy and Alicia were pushed into swimming pools and barely made it out. Angela was dangled precariously from a pier before being pulled safely back.

“What about you, Kurt?”

At 5, I was taking lessons at a community pool near our home in Seattle. I was the only black kid. Usually, that sort of thing didn’t bother me, but there was something about it happening at a swimming pool, something I can’t explain, that set me on edge and filled me with doubt. After my second or third lesson, I refused to go back.

The next summer, my baby-sitter decided it would be fun to teach me. At a lake, he grabbed my arm, walked me into the water, lifted me and hurled me through the air. I’ll never forget the ringing, resounding splash, and how I spun beneath the cold surface and into the gushing murkiness. I knew I was going to die. The baby-sitter had to rescue me.

That day, I swore I would never swim. As the years passed, I made a joke of it. “I must have drowned in a past life” or, “Black folks, well, we just don’t swim.” I was masking my fear with weak humor and old myths.

Cooper says my experiences are common.

About 10 people die from unintentional drowning in the United States every day, with African Americans, particularly kids, most at risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The drowning rate for black children aged 5 to 14 is almost triple that of white children of the same age.

“A lot of minorities just don’t have easy access to pools like mine, or these kinds of lessons,” Cooper says, reasons also cited by the CDC. “They don’t see a lot of black instructors. There aren’t enough role models. That doesn’t help, because not knowing how to really swim — the results can be tragic.”

He needs only to think of his wife, Londa Parks, to know that. When she was growing up in the 1950s, her 8-year-old brother fell into a Michigan river. Unable to swim, he was swept away and drowned.

“Having fun and being joyful is the emphasis in our pool,” Cooper says. “But we also know in a personal way that being in the water can be a matter of life and death.”

::

Cooper and Parks moved into their home in View Park in 1994. Until then, he’d been a salesman for United Parcel Service and the Famous Amos cookie company. The new home had a pool, and Cooper loved to swim. Informal lessons for neighborhood kids soon morphed into a full-time business, called Swim to Me.

He came up with a teaching style that is part Zen, part sweetness, part bust-your-chops. He has little use for props: no fins, paddleboards or water wings. He tends to put students into the deep end before they think they’re ready. He doesn’t use drills or complicated techniques: A swim kick, he says, simply resembles strolling. Sometimes he carefully nudges or holds you as you splash through the water.

“My main thing is relaxation,” Cooper says.

The majority of his time is spent teaching kids ages 2 to 10. It was their parents who began calling him the Swim Whisperer.

“That whisper part of it, I don’t know how he does it, but it works,” says Apryl Correa, as she watches her 4-year-old son, Sage, dive into Cooper’s pool one afternoon. “He says something in their ears. After a few moments, they try something they wouldn’t have tried before because they were afraid. I don’t know what he’s saying. I don’t think many of the parents do. All we see is the result.”

Says Cooper: “I don’t talk to their children like kids or babies. They are little people, and they respond like little people. Usually it’s really complimentary. But some kids... They throw tantrums, don’t pay attention, goof around. I go to their ears and quietly say, ‘You’d better get over yourself. Your daddy is right there. You want to go back to your daddy? Fine, keep crying, and you’re going to have to leave the pool.’”

Invariably, he says, the kids learn.

::

Despite my fear, I have always been drawn to the water.

That Seattle lake I thought I’d never make it out of? In high school I stood at its shores, envious as friends swam its width. While at UC Berkeley, I often made a point of watching Olympic great Matt Biondi, a classmate, swim his rhythmic practice laps. I was in awe of his easy buoyancy

On Day 3 in Cooper’s pool, that buoyancy is still elusive. I’m in the deep end, clinging to the wall. He has taught us the crawl and now wants us to use it.

“Swim across,” he tells me. My fellow students are lined up beside him.

“We’re waiting,” he says. “We don’t have all night.”

He smiles. I don’t.

He wants me to use my legs to drive off the wall and torpedo out. Five seconds pass. Ten. I don’t budge. The water laps against my neck. This is the deep end. Below is an underwater canyon ready to suck me down.

I release my grip and push off.

I stroke. I kick.

Then I do both at the same time. I stretch my arms toward the far side of the pool. I can see the wall coming closer, closer ... at last, I touch it.

Fifteen feet. Without drowning.

“See? It’s not all that bad,” Cooper says.

He beams. I don’t.

Am I imagining what I have just done?

On Thursday, we spend most of our time in the deep end, and I learn how to breathe between strokes without gagging.

I still worry that water will kill me, I still hesitate before letting go of the wall. My shoulder muscles still knot with fear when I tread water.

It’s humiliating. I feel like a churning pinball as I occasionally careen into one or another of the women. When I get home, I pick up my son. “Daddy is going to beat this thing,” I say. “And then he’s going to make sure you love the water and can swim. One day you’ll understand.”

Finally, it’s Friday. Cooper will test us.

To warm up, I swim the width of the pool. Then the length. I sense that I’m gaining control. But I’m still not sure I can tread water well enough. I still push off from the side walls with my feet to propel myself across the pool, which feels like cheating. What if I fell in deep water and had to swim without that push?

Ready or not, though, it’s test time.

Get out of the pool, Cooper tells me. Walk to the deep end. Stand on the side. Then step off. He means into the heart of the beast. Rise to the surface, he says, and swim. No pushing off from the wall.

I want to run away. I feel dizzy. But then I think of Ashe.

“Go ahead,” Cooper says.

I step off into the abyss. Water gushes around my head, but I float to the surface, tread water for a moment, then ease my way across the pool, crawling and kicking and breathing.

I’m swimming.

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesstreeter


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