- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July 28—Swimming was the fear I never planned to overcome.

I’ve gone sky diving, zip lining, and even endured roller coasters for stories — but I never saw swimming as one of my front page adventures.

The thing is, I’ve never been one to turn down a challenge. So, on July 20, I found myself at the Arundel Olympic Swim Center in Annapolis for my first day of adult beginner lessons.

The other hopeful swimmers who arrived were four African-American women and a mixed race teenage boy.

A 2010 study commissioned by the USA Swimming Foundation, found that nearly 70 percent of African-American children have either low or no swimming ability, compared to 60 percent of Hispanic children and 40 percent of Caucasian children.

The reason for the differences?

Access to facilities and the cost of lessons are factors, said Tina Dessart, of USA Swimming.

During segregation, Carr’s Beach in Annapolis was the go-to beach for African-Americans, but local historian Janice Hayes-Williams said that when the beach closed, not as many children learned to swim.

“When we don’t have access, how do you get your children to swim?” she said.

But in my case, it was more to do with family and fear.

My mother never learned to swim, and neither did her parents, so she didn’t take me for lessons. And I was afraid of the water anyway.

Still, it’s amazing what I’ll do for a story.

Making a splash

My heart started to race the first day of class as I walked alongside the pool.

Memories of middle school years at the pool near my mom’s house in Columbia came to mind.

I went to the pool, but would play alone in the safe four-foot end. My friends jumped off the diving board into eight feet of water.

Bruce Wigo, president of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, wasn’t surprised when I told him neither my mom nor I can swim.

“Her parents probably had no place to swim,” he said. “If your parents don’t swim, the likelihood of taking their children to swim is highly unlikely.”

Wigo said swimming wasn’t always as uncommon an activity among African-Americans.

“The fact is, most people who lived in tropical climates throughout history were amazing swimmers. The African women taught their children to swim almost before they could walk so they would be safe. In the 15 and 1600’s there were teams of African divers in almost every port waiting to recover shipwrecks and gold.”

Swimming was also means of escape for slaves, although access to pools became one last vestiges of segregation, Wigo said.

Still, Hayes-Williams, who grew up during segregation, learned how to swim and she made her children learn, too.

“It bothers me with all this waterfront that black kids that live here don’t know how to swim or are afraid to take advantage of the water,” she said.

Amirah Chester of Millersville came to my swimming class because she wants to join the Navy.

“They make you do a pass or fail test so I was like, I better get prepared,” the 21-year-old said.

She used to visit the swim center in middle school but stopped coming and decided to enroll in the adult beginner session as a refresher.

“I haven’t touched deep water yet so I wasn’t ready,” she said. “I always pinch my nose when going into the water so I wanted to get into the habit of not doing that.”

Like my mom, Chester’s mom can’t swim either — but the pattern has to stop somewhere.

Diving in

By the end of my first week of class, I was able to do the dead man’s float, hold my breath under water and swim with and without a life jacket.

The first day, I got into the water and crowded around our instructor, Virginia Dentler, with the rest of the class.

“What do you want to learn?” Dentler asked.

One student wanted to learn the butterfly stroke. She was moved to the advanced class.

And then there were six.

The class, which costs $75, is set up so that students go at their own pace, so some of us worked on breathing under water, kicks or floating while others practiced back strokes and breast strokes.

We report to the pool Monday through Thursday for two weeks of 40-minute classes.

Adult classes are held every two weeks during the summer and twice a week for four weeks during the school year.

The second day of class, it was my turn to perfect kicking.

“You were doing some serious dance moves down there,” Dentler said.

She taught me to move my feet as if I was kicking a feather, as opposed to a soccer ball.

Another student also worked on his kicks, splashing all of us. “You shouldn’t be able to hear your kicks,” Dentler said.

The third day, I arrived early and watched 4-year-olds learn to swim.

“Chicken, airplane, soldier,” Dentler said as she taught them the elementary back stroke, showing them how to bend their arms like chicken wings, then straighten them out like airplane wings and put them beside their bodies like soldiers.

When my class began, I learned the same thing.

“Chicken, airplane, soldier,” I recited, laughing.

By the fourth day, I was swimming with and without a life jacket — floating wasn’t too easy.

“I can’t,” I told Dentler.

“You can,” she replied.

“My butt keeps sinking.”

“Because you’re pushing it down,” she said.

Maybe I’ll perfect floating this week.

I also still need to conquer my fear of getting in water above my head.

But at least now I’m getting into the water.

___

(c)2015 The Capital (Annapolis, Md.)

Visit The Capital (Annapolis, Md.) at www.hometownannapolis.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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