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My Most Important Mile: Learning to Swim by Denise Dollar

 

Denise, in the pool, just the way she likes it: in the shallow end where she can see the bottom.
Denise, in the pool, just the way she likes it: in the shallow end where she can see the bottom.

We're back with our occasional series Most Important Mile today, and since summer is here, we've diverted a bit to head to the pool. Actually, Denise Dollar, founder of Heart Strides, is the one getting wet. We'll let her take it from here. 

I have my first swimming lesson today.

I have been teary eyed all morning. I don’t have my period; in fact this is my ‘good’ week. Stumped by the surge of tears on this rainy day, I scramble for explanations, but come up with nothing. Aside from wanting to get my house organized and my laundry done, it’s a pretty typical day.

I read the email from my swim instructor over and over, to the point of nausea. “The warmth of your hand will start locker room’s key pad...goggles…bring a towel.” I check my backpack over and over again, planning my strategy, which feels both simple and impossible at the same time: Just show up. Get myself to the pool.

Unable to locate the case for my contacts, I become teary again. “It’s just a case, it’s okay,” I tell myself, “Plus, you can explain that you don’t typically wear contacts because your eyes get dry, you don’t wear goggles, you don’t open your eyes under water…”

I realize I am already over-explaining.

I grab my backpack and jump in the car. I’m about a block away from my house when I go over my checklist again. Towel. I forgot my towel. I turn around in a panic. I will be late for my first swimming lesson. I can’t be late.

Give Denise a boat, and she's all about the water.
"Water gives me strength—and at the same time is one of the biggest cracks in my foundation."

Back on the road I think about how much I actually love the water. I love to be on it, near it…and in the shallow end of it. Ironically water gives me strength and brings me great peace.

I tear up again. Why? I still don’t know why. It’s raining out, I’ve been super busy. Just a good day to cry, I guess.

My lesson takes place about 14 minutes from my house. I know exactly where the pool is; there is no chance of me getting lost. Still, I find comfort in plugging the address into Google Maps. I check the distance, 6.2 miles, 4.3 miles, make sure I don’t missed my turn.

I wonder about how many adult learners skip their first swimming lesson.

I arrive and see two people coming out of the building. Do they know I can’t swim? Is it obvious? I’m pretty sure they know. I squeeze my towel under my arm and enter the building.

I find my way to the locker room and wipe away a few rogue tears as I wrestle with my swimsuit. Not a real swimmers swimsuit, I tell myself, just an I’m-a-mom-on-the-beach-who-wants-to-hide-her-hips kind.

I’m so out of my element.

Plus, I’m upset with the way my legs look in my suit. So stupid. You are here for a swim lesson, I tell myself. You are not here for a beauty pageant.

I enter the pool area. The chlorine smells intoxicating, the humid air, welcoming. I scan for someone who looks like an instructor. I think I spot her.

There are also two older men in the pool. Maybe in their 70’s? I’m envious. Not of their courage to wear a Speedo, but of their comfort in the water.

I scramble over to where my instructor is, stand on the pool deck, and talk really fast. I can’t stop myself. She seems a bit puzzled, but at the same time familiar with my behavior.

She quietly says, “Well…why don’t you come in?” and points to the stairs along the side of the pool. I climb down the ladder, holding on to the railings so I don’t kerplunk into the water.

Raised in Florida, Denise and her baby bro had plenty of beach time.
Raised in Florida, Denise and her baby bro had plenty of beach time.

We stand there for a minute, face to face. She doesn’t prompt me, but my nerves kick in and I am suddenly talking about how excited I am to learn how to swim, how I really want to do a triathlon, how I really want to be confident in the water, how I really want to be there for my kids. I tell her that when my kids were born, learning to swim was always something that I wanted to do. I didn’t want be afraid of them going out to far, unable for me to reach them, to save them from harm.

Save them from harm. The words stick to my heart like glue.

I see her looking at me, her eyes searching for a calm connection. Then she says something to me, which I can’t recall now, but it prompts me to share about my two near drowning experiences.

The first one happened when, on a road trip, we stopped in Texas to visit my aunt and uncle. We were playing in the hotel swimming pool, a large kidney-shaped pool with a bridge going across the middle, dividing the shallow and deep ends. I was 11 years old.

I didn’t know how to swim then, but my uncle said  he would help me learn. Next thing I knew we were standing on the diving board. He stood there with me, convincing me he would hold on to me and we would jump in together. He would be with me if I needed him. I still remember the weight of his arm resting around my waist. I never doubted he would follow me in.  “I won’t let go,” he said, “I promise.”

I jumped.

He didn’t.

I remember feeling panicked by the time I hit the water. I remember willing myself up to the top, crying and coughing. He came to the side of the pool to help me out, I think—or I want to remember it that way.

After that I don’t remember much, other than my Mom being completely furious with him.

That was more than 30 years ago.

“It’s okay to cry,” my instructor says, “It’s actually really good for you to let it out…a lot of people cry at their first lesson. Some people don’t even show up.”

I take a deep breath, apologize, wipe away the tears and tell her I’m ready.

We do a couple of simple exercises, and she suggests we walk to the deeper end of the pool, reassuring me I will still be able to touch the bottom. As we walk she asks if it was difficult to get to the lesson. I start rambling off about forgetting my towel and hitting every red light.

She waits until I finish and she says, “No, I meant was it difficult emotionally to get here today.”

I want to look at her with dry eyes and a strong heart and say, “Piece of cake…” but instead I tear up again and explain I was teary all morning over the oddest of happenings.

Now it’s starting to make sense. Fear of the deep end; fear of not being able to touch the bottom; fear of getting pushed in.

I share the second experience. I was in my early teens, with a friend who had invited me and some other friends to the lake. I remember being nervous, praying that there would be no rough housing in the canoe or sudden swim opportunities. I remember being on a raft; we had taken a small boat to a raft and we were all on it, soaking up the sun.

The driver of the boat left and I started to panic about how we would get off of the raft. I kept it to myself, too embarrassed to tell my friend that I couldn’t swim.

They all jumped in and started swimming to shore. I sat on the edge of the raft trying to figure out how I could just ‘drop in’ and somehow get to the shore. It didn’t seem that far. People were yelling at me to Hurry up! Jump in! Come on! So I jumped.

Learning to swim for herself—and for her kiddos.
Learning to swim for herself—and for her kiddos.

I sank to the bottom and got stuck in the muck for what seemed like forever. The top of the water seemed unreachable. By then my friend realized I was in trouble and she came out to help me back to shore.

My instructor looks at me with gentle eyes. “Such appropriate behavior for a teenager to not want to be embarrassed,” she says.

We do a few more exercises. I make an appointment for another lesson. I feel good.

On the way home I think about trauma. How it can’t be measured, how quickly the body absorbs it, and how long very, very, long it can hold on to it. I've held onto this trauma long enough.

I think about how empowering it will be to feel confident in the water. The deep water.

I also wonder why I didn’t take lessons earlier. I cry again.

Mostly though, I think about how learning to swim isn’t really about learning the strokes.

It’s about showing up and getting in the deep water when I’d really rather be on the shore.

What was (or will be) the most important mile? Share it with us! Best way to submit is to email us your story with a picture: runmother {at} gmail {dot} com with “Most Important Mile” in the subject line. Please try to keep your mile stories around 400 words. Thank you!

30 responses to “My Most Important Mile: Learning to Swim by Denise Dollar

  1. Denise: This was me last year, I can relate so much to your post. I wanted to do a triathlon and had to learn how to swim first. Hang in there – I did it. I learned to swim in the lessons, I did the tri last summer. The swim was not easy and I probably will not do another because of that fear of the water BUT I did it! I set my mind on a goal and accomplished it, and that sounds just like you. Good luck and stay strong. You can do this. Strength is not about finishing first or even placing, it is about accomplishing something that you want to do. You are strong.

  2. Keep up the good work! Completing a triathlon was my motivating factor for learning to swim last year. We started with bobs and within a few months I was able to swim 800m. It was a great feeling to finish my first tri. I still haven’t overcome my fear of swimming in open water. Maybe next summer?

  3. That’s awesome!!! It takes courage! I was in a similar situation in that I had signed up for a half ironman and had never done a triathlon or swam a length of the pool. I got teary when I arrived to my first masters swim. I’m not a fast swimmer and never will be but I can go the distance. I swam 2k in 48 mins this morning and I know you can do it too!!!!! GO DENISE!!! sending you deep water swim vibes.

  4. hooray for you. So awesome that you pushed through and showed up for the lesson. And im so glad you had an instructor who gets it. I can totally relate to the fear and the panic of the water. I was in tears reading this because I could physically feel what you were going through. I forced myself in the pool last year in order to participate in triathlons and while I no longer cry in the water I’m a long way from confident. But I learned that I’m stronger than I realized. You are too!

  5. Way to go, Denise! You are an inspiration to me who also needs to take adult swim classes. Thanks so much for sharing your story!!

  6. Way to go, Denise! You are awesome, facing your fears, getting yourself to your lesson, and learning to swim. Those are huge steps! Then writing about it as well?? Well done! You’ll be a swimmer before you know it!

  7. I am so glad that I am not the only adult woman who can’t swim. I really think I want to do a triathlon, but I have to learn to swim first. I feel a little ridiculous taking swim lessons as an adult though. Your story gives me courage.

  8. The best thing about reading this is that I’m home and in kleenix reach and not at work for my co-workers to wonder what I’m crying about. Denise YOU are a ROCKSTAR!!!

  9. You’re stronger and braver than you’re giving yourself credit for. Look! You showed up for the lesson and got in the pool. Baby steps, any steps are perfect. You can do it, way down deep inside, you know you can. Like Nemo said “keep on swimming,keep on swimming…”. You now have given me the courage to learn how to swim. I’m signing up! Thank you.

  10. Big thanks to all of you for reading and for sharing your own stories. I will be taking all of you with me for strength the next time I enter the pool for a lesson- though it might get a little crowded 😉 Thanks again, your words and good vibes are deeply appreciated. Swim on!

  11. I LOVE this! I will soon be 39 and couldn’t swim one length of the pool 2 years ago. I joined a rec center with a shallow pool and took an adult swim class. I swim twice a week now. I’m still nervous about deep water but jumped off of my neighbor’s diving board and didn’t drown : )

  12. Way to go. Trauma can manifest itself in many ways and that you have the courage to face your fears and trauma about swimming is inspiring. Your story of facing your fears about swimming can be related to so many other fears that we all have in life. It takes courage to admit a vulnerability and strength to take the steps to make changes in life. It’s so admirable that you are doing just that. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Thanks so much for this! I can relate — not to the fear part but to feeling awkward about taking swim lessons in my 40’s. See — I could tread water and doggy paddle all day but couldn’t put my face in the water to swim a “real stroke. With a very patient and creative instructor, I mastered basic freestyle. The best part was that I didn’t tell my family about the lessons and then surprised them by demonstrating in the condo pool at our next vacation. They whooped and cheered. I am very glad I stuck with the lessons — it was well worth the time, cost and awkward feelings! Keep at it!!

  14. My daughter had a near drowning experience at about 6 and it’s taken her a long time to be able to put her head under the water. Your description of the fear matches what I see in her and her urgent desire to be past that fear, but how hard it is to go through it. I am glad that you are going through your fear and that you have found the appropriate instructor to help you.

  15. Thank you for sharing. There are so many adults that don’t know how to swim, but are embarrassed to admit it…..you’ve admitted it, and shared your near-drowning stories….and you’ll be swimming with your kids and/or doing triathlons soon! I applaud your courage in being vulnerable and sharing your story, and in taking the leap to learn to swim.

  16. Thank you for being so candid and for taking the leap to learn to swim. You will find it exhausting and freeing.

  17. What an incredible post that also made me very sad. It is so wonderful you were able to overcome your fears and learn how to swim, not an easy task for anyone but especially adults. Congrats to you.

  18. Good for you! Learning to swim as an adult is so much harder than learning as a child. Like you, I love the water – the ocean is like heaven for me – but I can’t swim a stroke. I’ve tried to learn, but have failed every time. I would love to hear more about your journey to becoming a swimmer.

  19. Thank you for sharing! Your courage is amazing and beautiful. I too am learning to swim as an adult this year and it is HARD. We will do this, we will conquer our fears.

  20. WOW, my stomach hurt just reading that! I cannot even imagine facing this fear as an adult. What a major accomplishment it is for you to even get into the water. Stay stong. I know you will overcome your fears!

    I myself am a very strong swimmer and have never had fear of water. I realize this really is a gift. Your story is a good reminder that there are many adults who don’t know how to swim.
    Stay strong and swim on!

  21. Dang. I should know better than to read this over my breakfast b/c now I’m crying into my coffee & my kids are looking at my funny. (Though I don’t know why they’re not used to this by now; I’m a crier.) It is HARD to overcome fears. To do things as an adult that you feel you should already be able to do. To will yourself to drive somewhere that terrifies you.
    I’m proud of you! And you’ve given me courage to face things that I am normally timid of.

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