Learning How to Swim

personal narratives Mar 22, 2021

By Sarah Cai

It was when I transferred schools in the fourth grade that I was required to learn how to swim. I had been to our neighborhood pool on multiple occasions but only sat in the shallow kid pool with my little sister. Never have I ever before (or after) had to contend with a complication this scary.


I attended a small school in the west side of Cleveland, Ohio (that did not have a swimming pool or class) before my mom switched jobs and we moved to the east side. She told me that there would be a required swimming class at my new school so I would have to learn. She signed me up for lessons with the woman who would be the swimming teacher of my fourth grade class. 


Like my mom, I had not learned how to swim yet, for we were afraid of the water. Although I had never mastered the sport of swimming, I had taken quite a few classes with my babysitter and at the YMCA club. I remember an awful teacher who taught me when I was seven. Failing to hold me stably, she had caused me to slip and splutter on water. She had also tried to pressure me into going underwater to grab a rainbow colored ring she put down there (“Even little toddlers can do this!”), but I couldn’t imagine what it would look like underwater without my heart jumping out of my chest. Refusing, I turned towards my mom desperately, who was sitting on a bench near the water fountain, for help. She hurried over and informed the coach that sadly, I was very, very scared of swimming. Those classes traumatized me and did not help at all; I only have bad memories of them.


On the day of my first class, my mom dropped me off and I walked in to find my coach, Stacy, a tall brunette in her late twenties, waiting for me. When I was all ready and changed, I took a deep breath and realized that I was not frightened at all, not yet at least. 


I thought we would start in the shallow pool, but she instructed me to go into one of the lanes, where the shallowest part was five feet. When I got into the water, I was paralyzed with fear. My calm self from before disappeared. My limbs locked, determined to hold onto the wall and not fall in. A memory of falling into the pool and only seeing turquoise water and tasting chlorine came up, making a chill run through my spine. While daydreaming a nightmare of falling in and never coming back up, I clung onto the wall as tight as I could, my knuckles turning white at the effort. It did not help that the water was freezing, either. I stayed there, shivering, grasping the wall with my small hands as tight as I could, even when Stacy lowered herself into the water. 


“Our first exercise is practicing kicking with a kickboard,” she stated, as she handed the large blue piece of styrofoam to me. “Why don’t you just kick while I see how you do it?” 


My heart was beating so loud and fast I wondered if anyone could hear it if they ducked under the water. My mind went blank with fear. My senses stopped working. I completely forgot what she had said for a moment, until I realized she was waiting for me. I shook my head and said, “I can’t.”


“It’s really not that scary,” she responded. “I’ll be right next to you the whole time. I will not let you drown.”


At the word “drown” actually being said out loud, my stomach flipped and my heart skipped a beat. I trembled violently. “I’m scared. I don’t want to.” 


“If you never give it a try how will you know?” she asked with raised eyebrows. It was as if her facial expression was saying Well, humph. Challenge me.


That’s an awful saying, I thought, my face twisting into a frown. If I don’t know and I still give it a try, then that would be very stupid. I shook my head again with a force that made me feel even more dizzy than I already was and pulled my elbows onto the deck for more stability. “I am going to drown,” I said.


Stacy narrowed her eyes and huffed; she was clearly irritated. Putting her arms on the kickboard, she fluttered her legs, propelling herself forward gracefully. When she swam back over she said, “Sarah, if the kickboard can hold me up, you certainly will not drown; I am much heavier than you.”


This seemed to be a fair point to me, so I said with a small voice, “Ok.” She handed me the kickboard, and I reached my hand out slowly to grab it. I still held on to the wall with my other hand. I nervously got on, and I kicked my legs up and down. I winced, preparing to submerge, but the kickboard held me above the teal water. I splashed my legs and then I was actually moving forward!


I went home that day with a satisfied grin on my face, not knowing it would get worse. 


My fear of the water did not change in the next classes. Stacy started coaching me from the deck instead of in the pool with me, making me more nervous about my ability of keeping my body at the top of the water. We practiced kicking with the kickboard, arm movements with barbells, and combining them with a pool noodle. Sometimes Stacy did not coach me and I was either taught by Kayla or Michelle. When Michelle tried to teach me how to float on my back, I would refuse to let her let go of me and felt my eyes turn red like fire when she did. When Kayla asked me to jump into the deep end during my first lesson, I told her that I could not while actually wondering if she was insane. 


I told myself that it was all going to be fine. I was not going to be the only one who could not swim, and even if I was, it was not like everyone would be great! It did not matter to me if I could swim or not. I just wanted to make it through the classes, which were only once a week anyway.


Stacy, however, thought the exact opposite. She was determined to teach me how to swim. One class about a few months later, I waited in the lanes for Stacy to begin our class. When she came over to the lane, she was not holding a kickboard or anything. When she said with a matter-of-fact tone: “You’re going to try swimming now,” my eyes went as wide as golf balls. “It’s almost September,” she said. “You’re going to be the only one in your class who can’t swim.” I thought about that for a minute. I thought she was joking at the time, I did not think I would be the only one, but I knew I had to try.


It was one of those moments when you knew that you would have to do something frightening and there was no way out. I pictured myself saying no and pulling myself out of the pool, but I knew that Stacy would just give me her stern look, huffing and narrowing her eyes, and tell me to go back into the pool the way a mom would push her child to finish the vegetables on his plate. No matter what choice you chose, it would still be scary, so might as well pick the least scary one. I held onto the wall, pondering this, getting goosebumps from both the cold and the fright. 


Without trying to think too much, I pushed myself off the wall, only to catch the lane line seconds later in fear. I kept picturing what the pool looked like underwater, scaring me even more than blood and spiders. I thought that there was no way I could possibly swim for more than two seconds. I kept trying, but also kept grabbing the line barely after letting go. I decided to close my eyes when my head went in the water so that I would not have to see anything. But I got it; I only swam for about five seconds, but five seconds was three more than two seconds. I caughtthe lane to see if Stacy saw. She did see, but she did not look impressed. “Keep going,” she said. I hoped that even though her face showed no emotion, she was proud on the inside.


I ran to my mom after class with the happiest smile and a skip in my step and told her that I swam, leaving out the fact that I only swam for about five seconds. 


After a few more classes and a bit of improvement, the school year came, and I realized I should not have been so excited. I was wrong: everybody could swim well. All of my classmates knew the basics, and I could not even swim for more than a minute. I was always the slowest and the teachers babied me that year, since it was my first year swimming.


I dreaded going to school. I asked my mom if I could miss school. She said no. I knew that would be her answer every time, but I still tried. I dragged my feet to swimming class. I took my time to change. Every class I hoped that she would make the entire class a free swim so that I could just wade in the shallow end. I counted the days until winter break, the only time that I would not have to worry about swimming at all. 


It was embarrassing having all of my classmates see me struggle so much. It was like I was a sloth being taught how to run, or a person with stage fright being told to perform a solo in front of the state. It was as hard as learning a new language. I could always feel their stares, watching me, the last one still doing the warm up, swim slowly back. I just wanted to make it through every class not humiliated, alive, and healthy (in that order).


Somehow, I made it through fourth grade swimming, but I did not stop practicing, only because there would be a swimming class next year and the year after and the year after as well. I practiced every weekend at the Lifetime pool with my dad. 


Fifth grade started, and so did the terrible swim classes. The teachers stopped babying me that year. I continued to beg my mom to let me stay home on swim class days. During swim classes, I still stared at the clock, waiting for our dismissal. I barely made any progress over the summer, even though I put so much effort into making progress.


A couple months into the new school year, I walked down to the pool with my friends, after lunch. We got there, changed, and started our warmup. Our warmup was freestyle, four times back and forth. I swam two times only, since everyone had already finished their four. I did not want to be embarrassed by being the last one. My face got red thinking about all of those eyes that would be on me. We were learning breaststroke that day. Stacy taught us the basics and told us that if we did four laps of breaststroke we could have the rest of the class as a free swim. 


I got excited. I wanted to sit in the shallow end and not do anything, including worry about swimming. I thought, I can fake doing four and only do two (of freestyle, definitely not breaststroke that was way too difficult). So that was what I did. Or tried to do. As I got out of the water, Stacy said, “You didn’t finish your laps Sarah.” I lowered my head, ashamed that I was caught. The blood also drained from my face. Oh, shoot, I thought. Now I have to do the other two laps. Breaststroke! I can’t do breaststroke! The teachers were watching me. There was no way out. I just had to do it. I told myself to go slow, for if I went slow I would both save my energy and be dismissed before I finished my laps. 


I got back into the water, sulking. I tried to remember what Stacy had taught us during class about breaststroke. I kicked off the wall as hard as I could, hoping that that would hurl me far enough that I did not have to swim so far. I did the best I could, but I barely swam for a few seconds before I heard Stacy’s faint voice telling me to stop.


“What are you doing?” she said. “Were you not paying attention earlier?”


I did not know what to say. Without responding, I ducked my head back underwater and started trying again. It was not long before she called my name again. 


“Sarah, hey, Sarah,” she called, her irritated expression from the first class appearing again. She showed me the arm and leg movements again. “Do it like that.” 


I was so frustrated. If I were by myself in my room I would have screamed or cried. I felt my face get hot, even though I was in a freezing pool. I did not want to swim anymore, but I sincerely tried the best I could. I wanted to get out of the pool as soon as possible. However, my leg movements would not correspond with my arm movements and I was barely getting anywhere. 


Stacy continued to stop me and attempt to fix what I was doing. It never worked. Kayla came over to Stacy and tried to help as well, but nothing did. Stacy even said that I could drop the leg movement and just flutter kick while working on my arms. It was too difficult. My classmates were watching me now.


Somehow, I managed to get to the other side, while the teachers were called over by a student. I took that as an opportunity to freestyle my way back. I actually made it to the other side, only to find Stacy telling me off and snapping at me to go back to the middle, which was the point where she apparently caught me cheating my breaststroke. Her temper made my nostrils flare. Why can’t she try to understand me? I thought. She shouldn’t be mad. Can’t she put herself in my shoes? I looked down at my feet after the thought. The flippers I put on were only keeping me back, but I could not take them off. Stacy would think I was getting out of the pool.


I heard the other girls heading into the locker rooms; Stacy dismissed them. I was sure I would be dismissed with the rest of them, but I was wrong. There was no use in waiting for class to be over anymore because class was over but I had to stay longer. 


I started from the middle again. I had done four laps nonstop and still, she wanted me to go back and do another half of a lap. I was fine at first, but after a few seconds everything started spinning around and I felt like I needed to close my eyes in order to stop my wooziness and nausea. I thought that there would be no possible way that I could reach the wall. I did not know where I was going, I just kicked up so that I could breathe. I grabbed the lane line, the flags over the pool swimming around and around in my vision. Feeling like I was on the roller coaster at Cedar Point that went around and around in circles in the air, I tried to take long, deep breaths. The teachers would not let me go until I finished. 


It felt like I was learning how to swim all over again. I hardly got anywhere before I needed to seize the lane lines again. I was overwhelmed with the nightmare of drowning once again. I was so close to the wall… I reached the wall. I tediously climbed out of the water and felt like I would fall in. Everything around me swayed, but I was done for the day, and that thought comforted me.


“Good job, Sarah,” Kayla and Stacy said. They must have seen how I looked and regretted making me do all that swimming. 


It was quiet by the pool, no more shouting voices of the other girls. I walked towards my towel, then towards the locker room, moving in a slanted line. I moved as fast as I could, wanting to sit down in the locker room and recuperate. 


I opened the door and passed the mirror by the bathroom stalls, seeing my pale face and purple lips. I looked like Voldemort with lipstick. I heard people ask me where I was and lied that they made me do extra laps.


I walked to the lockers, but before I got there, I felt something rise up. I vomited ick into the large trash can. I could not remember the last time I threw up. Tears sprang into my eyes. All of my classmates saw that. I told myself that crying would only make it worse.


I did not go to the nurse after I changed. I did not call my mom to pick me up. I rode the bus as usual, but it only made me more sick. However, I did not need another reason to be humiliated.


The following years of swim classes got better. I never drowned, which was good, unlike the grade on my report card for swimming class. I hated swimming more than I hated math, but it was mandatory during those years at school. I got through every class. I never drowned. During the final year, I motivated myself by saying that after that semester, I would be done forever. Finally, the swim classes ended, and swimming was no longer a requirement. 


I am kind of glad, though, that my mom never let me skip school. It taught me that you cannot run away from reality. You cannot go around the obstacle. You can only go through it.


I guess it is kind of amusing that I enjoy swimming now.



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