I wrote the following story for The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer, where it appeared May 2. It appears here with links.
Their parents didn’t swim. A traumatic event involving water in their childhood continues to haunt them. There wasn’t a pool where they grew up — or there was, but they couldn’t use it. They worry about their hair.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 37 percent of American adults don’t know how to swim. In 2007, says the CDCP, the nation’s clearinghouse for health information, there were 3,443 “fatal unintentional drownings” in the U.S., nearly 80 percent of whom were adults. The vast majority died because they didn’t know how to swim, a fact that’s scaring a growing number of non-aquatic adults into taking lessons.
Earlier this year, 36-year-old Rhonda Ingram of Raleigh and her family were vacationing at Myrtle Beach. Her 3-year-old and 1-year-old were bugging her to go swimming in the hotel pool; she said no because she knew she wouldn’t be any help if they got into trouble.
“I always thought if I put my face in the water, I’d drown,” says Ingram.
Which is why she and a half dozen other adult women are in the three-foot-deep end of Raleigh’s Optimist Park Pool, trusting instructor Roger Sharrett to put their assorted fears of the water to rest.
“It takes a lot of confidence and faith to be comfortable in water,” says Sharrett. That touches on what instructors say is the biggest challenge for people learning to swim later in life.
“Adults have more fear,” says Kelley Chisholm, who also teaches at Optimist. “Eighty-five to 90 percent of adults have had some traumatic event, an uncle or someone who threw them into a lake.”
“Adults have a bad experience and it tends to carry with them the rest of their life,” adds Craig J. Howard, aquatics director at the Stratford Richardson YMCA in Charlotte.
Which is why before his students even hit the water, Howard gets them to talk about why they haven’t learned to swim. It’s why he spends 30 minutes of the first lesson just getting them to stick their face in the water and blow bubbles.
That was key to Jebronis Knight, a 40-year-old student of Chisholm’s who was reluctant to even get in the water the first day.
“You could see the fear on my face,” says Knight. It took three lessons, but Knight managed to reach what instructors say is the tipping point for most adult learners: He’s relaxed enough, his breathing controlled to the point he can now float. His ability to float makes him confident of achieving his goal: to go snorkeling in the Caribbean on a cruise later this year.
Fear isn’t the only factor that’s held back some adults.
Charlie Spencer Lackey is an African-American who came of age in Anson County in the 1960s. There was a public pool in town, but even with the repeal of Jim Crow laws in the 1960s her family couldn’t afford the suddenly-imposed $500 membership. She took lessons in 1970 when she got to North Carolina Central University, but the instructor, who remained in street clothes on the pool deck, didn’t inspire confidence.
Health issues — rheumatoid arthritis and stomach issues — prompted her to try again. Since discovering the Optimist pool last October (initially water walking, now taking swim lessons) she’s dropped a dress size and her joint paint has diminished to the point she no longer needs a cane.
“I sleep better these days,” says Lackey, who is 59.
Access to year-round pools, says Howard of the Stratford Richardson YMCA, is a main reason why the lack of swimming skills is particularly acute in the African-American community. According to a 2010 survey commissioned by USA Swimming, 70 percent of African-American kids don’t know how to swim, compared with 58 percent of Hispanic kids and 40 percent of white kids.
Even when there is access to year-round pools such as the Stratford Richardson Y, the reality of $50 swim lessons is an economic deterrent, he says, which is why the Y offers financial assistance.
Howard says another concern is more challenging to overcome: “Minority females worry about their hair and what the [chlorinated] water will do to it.” (There is product, he assures them.)
But the main goal for most newbie adult swimmers is simply to become comfortable in the water.
“Once you learn how your body works in water, you learn that it doesn’t want you to drown,” says Candice Robinson. That, says the 32-year-old Raleigh swim student, was a big relief, though not the only one.
“Finding out you’re not the only 32-year-old person who doesn’t know how to swim, that was good to know.”