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Grown-ups finding reasons to finally overcome their fear of the water

Kathrena Armbrister lowers herself into the pool at the South Oakland YMCA in Royal Oak, Mich.

She moseys along the side, letting herself get accustomed to the gently lapping water.

Then she places her hands on the pool ledge and calmly lowers her head into the water, allowing her legs to float back and up until her body is horizontal. She stays suspended for a few seconds before pulling her head out and standing on the pool bottom.

A smile spreads across her face.

This is a big deal. Armbrister of Detroit has spent all of her 43 years not knowing how to swim and, for much of that time, harboring a paralyzing fear of the water - so much so that putting her face underwater would have been unthinkable when she started swim lessons three months ago.

"I just think I'm a little more gutsy now," says Armbrister.

She is like many others who reach adulthood without ever having learned to swim.

The reasons are plentiful: lack of opportunity, bad experiences, fear of water.

Many, however, are discovering reasons to be drawn into the deep - and to aquatic centers for swimming instruction: seeing their children learning to swim, looking for a new way to exercise, not wanting to sit on the sidelines anymore as others enjoy the water.

For Armbrister, residual fear from an experience as a child left her unwilling to learn how to swim.

She was about 8 years old, playing in the shallow end of a community pool. People started roughhousing and Armbrister was knocked over. Someone fell on her. She panicked. She was able to push herself up for air, but it was the end of her carefree days in the water.

After that, Armbrister wouldn't go more than knee-deep in any kind of water. As an adult, she's come to enjoy taking vacations to the Bahamas, Mexico and the Caribbean, but she would only dip her toes into the tropical surf.

"I love going to the islands and I love going to the ocean, but it was no fun sitting on the beach all the time," says Armbrister.

Sometimes fear is passed on. Children whose parents were very nervous around water can grow up to feel the same way.

For years, Marcia Siesel of Troy, Mich., would watch others splashing in the water, never venturing in herself. She can't point to a specific incident that prompted her fear - she just never felt comfortable in water.

The 44-year-old had screamed her way out of swimming lessons as a child.

Despite her own fear, Siesel made her daughter take lessons, even though she cried, too. Siesel didn't want her to regret not knowing how to swim later in life.

"I always felt like I was missing something," says Siesel, now taking lessons at the Troy Community Center. "I'd see people swimming and I'd think, `That looks like so much fun!'"

It's not always fear that keeps people on shore. Many cultures don't emphasize swimming.

In India, where Lakshmi Chandra grew up, it wasn't a common leisure activity, so she never learned. Now a 35-year-old mother in Troy, she is learning at the same time as her 5- and 3-year-old daughters.

Other kinds of fears make swimming an anxiety-riddled affair. Some of the adults coached by John Ramirez, a swimming instructor for Ann Arbor, Mich., Community Education and Recreation, have avoided learning how to swim because of discomfort with their bodies or being seen in a swimsuit.

"A lot of things that you run into with adults is probably self-consciousness," says Ramirez.

Area swimming instructors say that business from adults who want to learn how to swim is brisk, if not booming. Pool directors say there usually are enough people to keep classes going almost year-round.

Like Chandra, Detroit resident Stacey Broomfield is inspired by her children.

Broomfield's 5-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter love the water. But not knowing how to swim made pool visits difficult for Broomfield.

"I would get in the shallow end, but it wasn't as much fun for me," says Broomfield, 35. "I would pretend I wasn't afraid because I didn't want to put my fears on my children. But I was afraid."

It's been two months since she started lessons at the Troy Community Center. She can do the backstroke and swim almost a full lap freestyle, but she's still working on her breathing. She's not sure how she'll fare in deep water; the area in Troy where she's learning is just 4 feet deep.

Still, she feels much more confident.

"My kids think I can swim now," she says. "I love swimming now."

Besides swimming for the fun of it, new adult swimmers say they enjoy the health benefits. Water can be relaxing - once over any fear or discomfort - and swimming regularly can help build endurance, muscle strength and a healthy heart and lungs.

For Armbrister, learning to swim is a part of her year long goal to become more athletic.

Eventually she hopes to swim well enough to do laps for exercise. For now, she is still learning basics and growing more comfortable in the water.

"I don't get it, why can't I just stay afloat?" she asks one day as she tries to swim several feet in the deep end of the Royal Oak pool. "Why do I feel like I'm sinking?"

Swim instructor Margina Moore is nearby, putting a reassuring hand on Armbrister's waist whenever it seems like she is about to drop.

"You are sinking," Moore says. "You tighten up. Come over here and try it again."

Learning to swim is helping Armbrister embrace other water-related activities.

"I get so excited when I do something I haven't before," says Armbrister. "In July, I went on a Jet Ski for the first time ever. It was heaven! But I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't been taking these classes."

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