Aging

How I Faced My Fears and Finally Learned to Swim at 66

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I’m standing in the shallow end of a swimming pool at my state-of-the-art gym, hands extended to the wall, face in the water. I blow bubbles as instructed and attempt to synchronize my arm movements to the rhythm of breathing.

I am 66 years old. This is not water therapy, nor is it an aquatics class. This is the first of what will become weekly swimming lessons, one-on-one with an instructor who I’m counting on to nudge me along in this late-life trial by water.  

I do not take like a duck to water and never have. Two feet on the ground is more in keeping within my comfort zone. It was back in my 20s that an affinity for running kicked in, metaphor aside. Nothing like a L’eggs Mini-Marathon to trigger a competitive spirit, bolstered by the powerful femaleness of it all.  Nothing like a NYC Marathon to reaffirm what it means to go the distance (at a respectable 3:48:57 to boot). No one will ever see the city, neighborhood by neighborhood, the way a marathon runner does.

Better Late Than Never

The body, if you listen to it, knows what it needs. Years of running gave way to lower impact cardio workouts at the gym coupled with yoga and Pilates.  I take vigorous walks almost every day, weather permitting. So why bother now to learn a skill so much more easily learned when you’re young enough to jump in the water without tottering on the edge of fear?

Everything you do feeds everything else you do, if you let it. Pilates, what with all the focused core work, informs my yoga practice. I get moments of grace in my leaps and lunges, but grace is still at least a step away from that lift and lightness in body and spirit I think of as buoyancy. Into the pool I go.

It’s time to get past being haunted by swimming classes in high school. Here’s what I remember: a no-nonsense teacher with a pole in her hand, instructing us from the edge of the pool. She had grey hair, she wore a skirt over a bathing suit and pool shoes. If the pole was supposed to reassure me that I could reach for it in a moment of panic, it had the opposite effect.  A certificate stating I could tread water did little to reassure me that I’d ever stop groping for the wall in the deep end of a pool, or try to catch a wave in water over my head.

There is no straight line from a fear faced to a fear conquered. My instructor, with her long blonde hair, breezy smile, and gentle, playful teaching manner, gives me a plastic blue ring at our very first lesson, something she gives to all her students — young and old. The really young ones get a little rubber duck. It’s a way of disarming me and it has its charm. She drops it to the bottom of the pool, scoops down to pick up it. One day, she smiles, I’ll be doing that without a second thought.

She fits me with other props I can more immediately make use of. A kickboard and flippers become my friends, although, even they need some finessing. Yes, a kickboard will keep you afloat, but not if you’re holding onto it for dear life. Indeed, flippers will propel you forward, in a straight line, as long as you’re kicking from the hip, not the knee.

Old Habits Die Hard

Old habits, imprinted in the body, die-hard. All those years of keeping my head out of the water while moving my arms and legs in some facsimile of swimming are not easily undone. Goggles free me to keep my eyes open underwater as I practice the proper way to breathe. Within weeks I learn to ease my grip on the kickboard. I grow to love my flippers. I’m gliding, no longer like lead in the water, even if I can’t seem to get past the halfway marker of the lane, my comfort zone.

Little by little, my instructor tries to nudge me past that comfort zone. Little by little, I come to trust the process, slow and steady, that allows me to tease apart those moving parts still a little like disjointed cogs in a wheel. Repetition makes for neuromuscular memory, she reminds me. Each lesson begins with a warm-up — first breathing while standing at the wall, next a lap (easier by the week) with kickboard and flippers. Each week, with a little less reluctance I ditch the kickboard, propelled now by my arms doing their best to work in coordination with my flipper-happy feet.

This is what I build on, a growing confidence coupled with a diminishing anxiety that allows me to breathe with less desperation so that I can focus on the coordination — arm movements, kicking, breathing — required to swim. One week has me feeling strength in my kicks; another week it’s that rogue right arm that throws me off course. One week I’m frustrated when I remove my flippers and, even with my kickboard, I make very little headway. Another week determination takes hold and I go for it — a complete lap, no props, barely winded. It is not always easy, even with all my years of yoga practice, to be truly in the moment, no chattering mind to distract me. Somehow learning to swim has me in a place of single-minded focus. The only voice I hear is the delightful voice of Dory in Finding Nemo: “Just keep swimming.”

Just Keep Swimming

A pivotal moment has me actually laughing when I find myself floundering in the deep end of the pool. My prop for this lap, a pull buoy designed to keep me afloat while I focus on arm movements, has slipped away. I’m completely off-balance, unable to make my way to the ladder. Months earlier I would more likely be panicked. My body intuitively takes over. I flip onto my back, let my legs do what they’ve learned to do (almost) with ease. 

It’s 18 months since I first dipped my toes in, a little winter break and I’m raring to pick up where I left off, get back into the groove of swimming. So what if I still prefer the security of an outer lane with ladders? I’ve earned the right, at this stage in life, to learn things on my own terms.  I’ve learned, too, that facing a long-held fear goes a long way toward lightening its hold on your body, mind, and spirit.

This essay was written by native New Yorker Deborah Batterman, the author of Shoes Hair Nails and Just Like February (April 2018). Learn more about her at deborahbatterman.com.

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