Making friends with water

Making friends with water


The first few times I entered the pool for my adult swim class, I nearly hyper-ventilated. It was a month before I wasn’t in tears on the drive home from the Racine YMCA where I happened to find a coach.

I had decided to learn to swim front crawl this summer, in the hopes of conquering a half-mile in open water for the Iron Girl Pleasant Prairie in August. And even if I never made it that far, I would be a better swimmer than I was, and that’s smart when you live near a lake.

My default swimming method since childhood is a modified breaststroke with a lopsided kick and bad rhythm. It’s a slow way to go, but reliable, and allowed me to pass a swim test in college.

As for front crawl, my head and body position weren’t right, causing my legs to drag well below the surface. As a result, it took an enormous amount of effort to make my way across the 25-yard pool, where I would emerge, red-faced and gasping.

I told a friend of mine that the water was trying to kill me. She said the water was not the enemy and suggested I spend some time just floating. “The water is there to support you,” she said.

At the next class, I began by paddling a few lengths, on my back, staring at the ceiling. This was surprisingly pleasant, almost soothing. When I again switched to front crawl, I completed a pool length comfortably, breathing easily.

Maybe this is a way to face certain irrational fears, by imagining the object of your anxiety is actually on your side.

In the weeks since, I have continued practice, but I still have a long way to go.

I am not sure I’ll be able to swim a half mile by next month, not to mention open water on Lake Andrea. But I’ve met a half dozen ladies who have either done the Iron Girl sprint or plan to, and each of them has told me not to give up. You can join the last wave and use a floatation device if need be.

I’ve had some setbacks. Progress in learning a new skill is not a straight line.

This week I went to the big indoor pool at the Pleasant Prairie RecPlex, to swim across the longer 50-yard lanes. Facing downward as I swam front crawl, I watched the bottom of the pool slip deeper, from 4.7 feet down to 7 feet, down to 12 feet deep.

The vastness below spooked me a little. My breathing became hurried, just like old times, and my legs sank. I switched to my trusty off-kilter breaststroke until I reached the edge.

I paused. I reminded myself that the water is a friend. It will hold you up, if you let it. Think of floating.

With that, I pushed off the wall and swam that length again.

Amy Ambrose writes this column monthly. Email:



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