- The Washington Times - Monday, April 1, 2002

Angie L. Reese-Hawkins carried a secret with her until she was about 36 years old. As president and chief executive officer of the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington in Northwest, she could not swim. Since the organization she heads built the first indoor swimming pool in the District in 1903 and offers swimming classes at its 12 pools in the Washington area, she thought it was essential to take the plunge, which she did at the Anthony Bowen YMCA in Northwest.
"You're always making these excuses as to why you're not out there having a great time with everyone else," Ms. Reese-Hawkins says. "When you wait that late to learn to swim, you are a little bit nervous and somewhat timid, especially if you are not sure you have the most perfect body in the world. You are very concerned that you will not be able to overcome this fear."
The hardest part of learning to swim for adults may be conquering their fear of the water, says Connie Harvey, health and safety expert for the American Red Cross in Falls Church. Whatever the reason, the ability is an important life skill for people of every age. She says about 2,500 of the 4,000 people who died from drowning in 1998 were older than 24.
"It's so important for everyone to learn to swim no matter what age," Ms. Harvey says. "We encourage people to learn to swim at a very young age, but it's important for adults to learn to swim if they didn't when they were younger."

Marvin Lewis, 35, of Alexandria almost drowned as a child when he was attending a summer camp. The negative memory has affected his attitude toward the water. He is trying to put the bad experience behind him by replacing it with new ones during adult beginners' swimming lessons at the Robert S. Rixse Memorial Pool at the Chinquapin Park Recreation Center in Alexandria. The class cost $56 for two lessons a week for four weeks.
"I'm determined that this year will be the year that I learn to swim," Mr. Lewis says. "I feel like I'm making the most progress I've ever made."
Saba Tesfamariam, Mr. Lewis' classmate, says she enjoys taking lessons, even though the backstroke is a little daunting.
"I get water in my ears and nose," the 33-year-old from Alexandria says. "It's my technique."
Jim Strange, water safety instructor for the adult beginner class at the Rixse pool, says he starts slowly with his students. He teaches about six to eight students per course. The next session starts at the end of April.
"Let's blow some bubbles," Mr. Strange says to his students while they are in the pool during a Thursday night class.
He says he tries to make his participants feel relaxed and comfortable. He begins by asking them to push from the pool wall in a streamlined position with their face in the water, adding kicking and arm movements over time. He says many students have difficulty breathing to the side during the freestyle stroke (the front crawl) without swallowing water. After his students grasp freestyle, he teaches the back stroke with an inverted breast stroke kick.
"It takes old-fashioned practice, practice, practice," Mr. Strange says. "Many people don't want to embarrass themselves in lessons. They don't want to admit they can't swim, so they don't try. The only embarrassment is not trying. The ones who try are the heroes."
Larry Miller, water safety instructor at Allentown Splash Park in Temple Hills, says the only person he couldn't teach to swim was a woman who refused to get into the pool. He teaches the adult beginner course throughout the year, costing $45.
"She paid her money and sat on the side of the pool for four weeks," Mr. Miller says. "I said, 'If you would get in, I could teach you how to swim, but you've got to get in.'"
For those students brave enough to enter the pool, Mr. Miller tries to build their self-confidence while they're in the water. He usually instructs about eight to 12 people twice a week for four-week sessions. While teaching students to float, he holds the hands of those who are scared. To teach kicking, he has students hold onto the side the pool and move their legs.
As the students master the skills, Mr. Miller moves them into deeper water. If his students can tread in eight feet of water, he feels he has succeeded. In one instance, a woman brought her children to the pool for them to observe how she learned to swim.
"She didn't tell her kids she was taking swimming lessons," Mr. Miller says. "The last class, she brought the kids to the pool. She showed them she could swim across the pool. They were jumping up and down and high-fiving her and going crazy doing the wave on the bleachers."
Mr. Miller says children are much more likely to be excited about spending time in the water, whereas people who learn to swim as adults are more analytical about the activity.
"Kids catch on fast, and they're not scared," Mr. Millers says. "They would jump off the diving board in Pampers."

Claudette Daniels, 53, of District Heights, says taking water aerobics helped her feel more at ease in a swimming pool. She recently completed the first beginner course for adults at the Theresa Banks Aquatic Center in Glenarden.
"I haven't gotten over my entire fear, but I've come a long way," she says.
Learning to swim has enabeled JoAnn Barber, 63, of Lanham, to cross bridges without becoming anxious. She is also taking the first course for adults at the Theresa Banks center.
"I always had a fear of going over bridges, that the car might drop in the water, and I couldn't save myself," she says. "Last class, I jumped into eight feet of water and I had no fear. It was fun. I did it three times."
Dana Ford, a classmate of Mrs. Barber, says she does not enjoy the experience of jumping in the deep end of the pool. Despite her anxiety, she decided to take swimming classes because her family reunion is in July in Cancun, Mexico, on the Gulf of Mexico, and she wanted to go in the ocean without worrying.
"I try to not think about the fact I can't feel the bottom," Miss Ford says. "I know the instructor won't let me drown."
Shana Hendricks, water safety instructor at the Theresa Banks center, says she tries to build trust with her students. She spends extra time with those swimmers who are afraid. The course she teaches costs $40, and runs twice a week for four weeks. There are up to 10 students in each session, which run year-round.
"It's the same water in eight feet as in five feet," Ms. Hendricks says. "It's all in your mind."
By the end of the adult beginner class, she makes sure her students master a number of skills before she passes them to the advanced beginner level. For instance, they need to complete supported kicking on their front and back for at least 10 yards.
"It's extremely important to learn to swim," Ms. Hendricks says. "It's a lifelong skill that prevents drowning. It's good exercise. It's healthy. It's fun."


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