- Associated Press - Monday, June 30, 2014

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Just relax.

Sometimes it’s the hardest thing to tell anyone, particularly an adult. But getting a person to listen and learn about relaxing in the water can, literally, make the difference whether someone sinks or swims.

Summer is swim lesson time for kids, yet many organizations are targeting adults to get them in the pool to learn, too.

“It’s a huge population of people who either want to learn swimming for fitness or a triathlon,” said Katrina Caulfield, team leader for the swim program at UW Health’s Sports Medicine Center. “Or they want to get into swimming because their kids are in swimming and they want to get in the water with their kids or grandkids.”

In April, the Centers for Disease Control released a report about drowning deaths in the U.S. From 1999 to 2010, an average of 3,868 people died of unintentional drowning each year. Death rates decreased over time for all age groups except ages 45-84. In the 45-84 age group, death rates increased nearly 10 percent.

In May, the American Red Cross launched a national campaign to reduce the drowning rate by targeting 50 U.S. cities that report the highest incidence of it. A survey conducted for the Red Cross reported that while 80 percent of people said they could swim, only 56 percent of them reported that they could do the basic skills needed to survive in the water. Those include swimming 25 yards, entering water above your head, then emerging and treading water for a minute.

In the Madison area, where lakes and rivers call to people on a regular basis, there are myriad opportunities for adults to learn how to swim. They can take one-on-one lessons through UW Health or Madison Area Technical College. They can learn in group classes at a variety of places, including the three area YMCAs, at the West Side location of SwimWest, through Madison School and Community Recreation, or at community/school pools in Verona or Middleton.

“Some just never had the opportunity,” said Becky Whiting, aquatic director at the Northeast YMCA. “They’ll call me wanting to swim and say, ‘Well, I’ve never taken lessons.’ I say, ‘Come on in.’?”

Many didn’t get the opportunity because they grew up in rural areas without a pool. Others latched onto other sports as a child and never swam much. In addition, many of the students are here from abroad for the university and never learned back home.

For Swetha Gurajala, when she began to take lessons at the YMCA Northeast in Sun Prairie, it was the first time she’d ever been to a swimming pool. She had been to a beach but didn’t know how to swim. There is less value placed on children being active in India than in the U.S., Gurajala said, so she never learned. But she wanted to exercise.

“For me, working out in a closed room is something I don’t like,” said Gurajala, who moved to Madison in September. “I like to be outside and I love water, so for me it was an easy way to exercise.”

Marta Tzorin of Madison had tried to swim when she was a child, but it turned into a traumatic experience. She was in a lake, and tried to swim on her own despite not knowing how to.

“I almost died,” she told the Wisconsin State Journal (https://bit.ly/1wyGBWh). “I was always scared after that.”

That isn’t uncommon, swim instructors say. But, as the years go by people who can’t swim feel left behind or they are in water-related situations in which they want to feel safe. Caulfield finds a theme with students who are over the age of 50.

“They’re going to go on vacation with their grandkids, or they’re going to be watching their grandkids over the summer and they want to get in the pool or lake with them,” she said. “Part of it is safety, but part of it is because they feel they are missing out.”

The fear is very real, but if would-be swimmers make the commitment to learn, they find a way to get over it. That’s where the maturity and logic of being an adult kicks in.

“I was a little afraid the first time,” Gurajala said. “But it’s a swimming pool; it’s only 3 feet. It’s not going to hurt me.”

Overcoming that fear, for adults, is mostly a matter of relaxing.

“As adults, they know it will be OK, but sometimes they still panic,” Whiting said. “Adults can almost be more tense. To float, you have to relax. One woman, I worked with her for a long time. She really wanted to float but she was so afraid and always so stiff.”

From there, the biggest challenge - as it is with kids - is teaching the rhythm of the breathing. First off, there’s the tiny matter of sticking one’s face in the water, followed by a pattern of inhaling above the water and exhaling into it.

“It seems simple, but to someone who isn’t comfortable with the water, it’s such a foreign feeling,” Caulfield said.

With adult lessons, instructors ask students what it is they want to learn. There is no specific skill curriculum as there might be for kids’ lessons.

“A lot of adults just want to learn how to jump into deep water without freaking out,” said Rachel Bird, pool manager for the Middleton-Cross Plains Area Indoor Pool. “I had a couple ladies who could float and tread water for a minute, but they had a fear of deep water.”

Bird said the adult lessons at her pool are expanding. They had originally been designed for people who wanted to sharpen their skills for fitness or triathlon training, but staff kept getting calls from adult beginners.

One father came to the pool to sign up his daughter, and signed himself up, too.

“He didn’t know how to swim and wanted to take her on a Florida vacation,” Bird said.

Students do see progress, and vary in how quickly they pick it up.

“It was hard for me to float, and it just came to me on the second day,” Gurajala said. “I could swim and float. It’s because of the technique my teacher told me.”

Yet Gurajala is envious of the stamina of the swimmers, many of them seniors, who she sees doing laps in the pool. It’s her goal to be able to do that, too.

For Tzorin, success came with a jump into the deep end. At a class at YMCA West, Tzorin let others go ahead of her when they all practiced jumping in the deep end. Even with a belt with flotation devices around her waist, she hesitated time and time again. Finally, she jumped. And then quickly got out of the pool and did it again.

“The more I work with adults and kids, the more I learn they’re really not that different,” Caulfield said. “The fears are the same.”

Caulfield said the adult program’s main goal is to get people to love the water. That, she said, is a greater measure of success than what they might do with the skills once they have them.

“Not everyone wants to be an Olympic swimmer,” she said. “They might just want to be able to move from Point A to Point B in the easiest way possible and they don’t care what it looks like, and we’re fine with that.”


Information from: Wisconsin State Journal, https://www.madison.com/wsj

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