Overcoming fear of water

Overcoming fear of water

Stories frequently run about boaters accidentally or unexpectedly thrown overboard. If that happened to you, could you swim? Could you really swim, putting your face in the water and breathing while swimming? How about your family and crew? Could you swim a quarter mile if necessary?

I couldn’t either.

Most of us, especially if we’ve grown up near the coast, learned to swim as children. For boaters or anyone else spending time on the water, swimming is a pleasurable recreation, but it’s also an essential, even lifesaving, skill.

Yet we all know people who go in the water, perhaps paddle around, yet never put their face in the water, always offering an excuse.

As I discovered when working with 24-year swim instructor Kim Shults, that the reluctance usually stems from an underlying fear or anxiety after a bad childhood experience, and leads to a problematical relationship with the water.

I’ve always loved the water and was a total waterbug as a kid, fantasizing about running away to sea. As an adult, I enjoy exercising in the pool, doing water aerobics and “water-walking.” But I was frustrated I didn’t know how to swim properly. I resolved to change that.

I met Shults in the pool at the now-closed Plunge in Mission Beach and observed her teaching 3-year-old twins. I admired her easy manner and encouraging approach toward swimming.

Afterward I asked if she also taught adults. She explained she had just launched her “40 for 40” Face in Water Project celebrating her 40th birthday by teaching 40 individuals how to swim in one hour.

It was only when I explained I didn’t submerge my face because I didn’t know how to breathe that I realized I had had three separate near-drowning incidents by age 6. The last of these was during my final swimming class. None affected my love of the water, but they left me a poor swimmer.

“Breathing is by far the most difficult skill,” she said.

I was Shults’ sixth participant and her first adult. I went for my lesson with great excitement but minimal expectations. Could she really teach me how to breathe and swim properly in just one hour?

Yes, indeed, she could and did. For me, it was the most liberating experience. I flew through the pool, especially when fitted with fins. I felt as if she had given me back the joy and exhilaration I experienced in the water as a child but lost as an adult.

While I’ve gone back for more lessons to refine my technique, that one-hour lesson turned me into a real swimmer for the first time. I began swimming laps, breathing easily between strokes.

Our lesson turned out to be life-changing for both of us. A former high school English teacher and always passionate swim instructor, Shults had specialized in teaching swimming to autistic and special-needs children. She never realized she has a special gift and skill: teaching adults how to overcome their fear and anxiety about learning to swim.

After I wrote about my experience for my local newspaper, Shults was flooded with emails from adults with stories similar to mine, relating traumatic experiences that inhibited their ability to swim. All wanted to learn; several lived or worked on boats. Many participated in her project and learned to swim.

Intrigued? If you or someone you know wants to learn or improve their swimming, for whatever reason, check out Shults’ website at faceinwater.org. Email her at faceinwater@gmail.com or call (858) 531-8398.

It’s never too late to learn to swim. Someday it might even save your own or someone else’s life.

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Capt. Nicole Sours Larson

Capt. Nicole Sours Larson has spent more than 25 years boating in Southern California and Mexican waters as well as throughout the East Coast's Chesapeake Bay. A freelance writer, she holds a USCG captain's license and has been writing about boating since 2009. Previously she lobbied on boating safety and education issues for boating organizations at the federal, state and local levels.

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