Learn to Swim

Until recently, I never had a good sense of just how lucky I am that my parents made knowing how to swim such a priority for my brother and me when we were kids. I started taking lessons when I was 18 months old, and by age five—spurred on by a relentless sense of sibling rivalry that still has me chasing my accomplished and successful older brother today—I started competing. I’ve never not known how to swim, and I’ve been safe around the water for nearly my entire life.

Baby Elaine HowleyFeeling safe and comfortable in the water is a real gift that my parents gave me, but it didn’t happen by accident; it was a very conscious effort. Although my dad was a good swimmer and had been a lifeguard as a teenager, my mom was a different story. Traumatized by being thrown into the deep end by her father when she was a child, my mother never really learned to swim. She’s uncomfortable in the water, and will only go in if it’s very warm and shallow, i.e. a hot tub or an overheated backyard pool. And she never, ever puts her face in.

When my brother and I came along, she decided that there were two things we were absolutely, positively going to do no matter how much we might not want to or how much we might protest. The first was learn to play an instrument. Any instrument. It didn’t matter which one, it just mattered that we learned music. The second thing we were required to learn as early as possible was how to be proficient swimmers.

My mother wanted very much for us to not feel like she did, sitting on the side feeling inferior and afraid during pool parties. She wanted us to be water-safe at a minimum, and she hoped that maybe one day we would actually enjoy swimming. Swimming is one of those life skills that can not only save your life but also provides lots of health benefits and opportunities. It can open doors. My mom recognized this and encouraged us to become strong swimmers. Little did she know what would eventually come from my early introduction to the water. (That fact that you’re reading this piece is in large part due to the simple fact that my mom insisted I learn to swim.)

In many ways it’s strange that a woman who positively hates to put her face in the water would have reared a Channel swimmer, but my mom was determined not to pass on her water avoidance practices or her fear to her children, and for most of my childhood, I didn’t know my mom was afraid of the water. I figured she just preferred to be on the pool deck or the beach to keep an eye on our stuff. Little did I know how much courage it took for her to join us at the water’s edge when she did.

This makes my mom unusual; many adults who cannot swim or are afraid of the water pass on their fears to the next generation, perpetuating water avoidance and a very real risk of drowning. And there are millions of adults out there who are scared to swim; a 1998 Gallup Poll found that 65% of Americans said they were afraid of the water. Collectively, they have millions of children and are unwittingly raising them to be fearful of the water, too. And it’s worse than just being afraid or not being able to frolic at a pool party: An inability to swim can be life threatening.

Elaine Howley

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 37% of American adults can’t swim 25 yards, the length of a standard swimming pool. These individuals are at risk of becoming one of the 10 people who drown every day in America. We often think of swimming lessons as something for children, not something that adults need to do. But of those 10 people who drown daily, eight of them are adults or young adults. Drowning and water safety is very much a topic for adults, and learning to swim isn’t just child’s play.

In this day and age, especially for people like me who’ve always known how to swim, it can be hard to imagine being an adult and being unable to swim or being afraid of the water.

These statistics are scary, and lots of organizations—from the CDC and the YMCA to the national Drowning Prevention Foundation and the American Red Cross—have long stated that learning basic swimming skills is important. In an effort to add some urgency to the notion that learning to swim is important, my employer, U.S. Masters Swimming and its charitable arm, the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation, decided to designate the month of April as Adult Learn-to-Swim month. We’re trying to raise awareness of the figures and draw attention to the fact that it’s never too late to learn to swim. To date, the governors of seven states—Indiana, Florida, Maine, Nebraska, New Jersey, Vermont, and Washington—have issued proclamations in support of this initiative, and more are joining. They want to see the nonswimmers in their states do something to help themselves and are supporting our campaign for adults to learn to swim.

If you’re one of the millions of adults who isn’t comfortable in the water, please know you’re not alone. Don’t be ashamed. Help is available and learning to swim doesn’t have to be as scary or as difficult as it might first seem.

And it truly is never too late to learn; just last week, I talked to an 87-year-old Masters Swimmer who first learned to swim at age 60. Her doctor is amazed at how fit she is, especially given (what has long been considered) her advanced years, and it’s because of swimming, a skill she picked up later in life. If a frightened 60-year-old can do it, why can’t you?

Elaine HowleyPersonally I’d rather swim a mile than walk it; yes, I’ve had more than 30 years of training and practice, but most novice adult swimmers need only a few lessons to make themselves safer around the water and virtually drown-proof, a term used in the learn-to-swim community to indicate that a person is able to get themselves to safety in most immersive situations. With a little courage and some effort, it’s not that hard to help yourself become safer and more confident in the water. It just takes some commitment to try.

As part of our April Adult Learn-to-Swim campaign to reduce the incidence of adult drowning, we’ve assembled some information and resources to help you find learn-to-swim programs in your area. I encourage anyone who doesn’t know how to swim to look into taking lessons. Make yourself water-safe, and you just might find the best new workout you didn’t realize you could do.

If you are a proficient swimmer, why not share some of your time to help an adult in your community learn to swim? Many facilities around the country offer adult swimming lessons and most need volunteer teachers. Helping someone learn an important life skill like swimming will not only make you feel good, but it will also provide a real benefit to that individual and your community as a whole by helping to break the cycle of water avoidance and ultimately, the risk of drowning. When we’re all safe around the water, we all win.

Swimming really can save lives. Not just that, it can make good lives better, too. I’m grateful that my mom recognized this early on and gave me the gift of joy in the water. Swimming has given me so many opportunities and made my life what it is today. I can’t imagine who I’d be without it. Try imagining who you can be once you do know how to swim.


April 09, 2014 at 6:26 am

Great article! I had a near drowning when I was 7 so I was like your mom for many years. I finally took swim lessons 2 years ago and am now competent in the water. I do still have anxiety when I know I am in water over my head, but I can always float and backstroke out of trouble which is a big comfort. I hope someday to find swimming fun.


April 09, 2014 at 10:22 am

Congratulations to everyone who has taken the brave step of getting past her fears. It’s never too late to learn!

I learned to swim as a small child & I’ve loved the water all my life. I hope everyone learning now comes to love aquatics as much as I do!


April 15, 2014 at 12:59 pm

This article almost makes my cry. I am 40ish and never learned how to swim but instilled the importance of swimming to my two sons whom are now avid surfers and aren’t afraid of 8 foot swells. After reading this, I will make a point to learn to swim. Thank you


April 15, 2014 at 1:11 pm

Meg! I’m so glad you found this piece and that it made sense for you. I’m excited to know you’re going to start swimming– you can do it! Best of luck on your swimming journey!


April 27, 2014 at 3:53 pm

Meg… I learned to swim just last year at 38 and now it’s one of my favorite things in the world to do. I swim 1-3 times a week. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve made. You can absolutely do it.


July 30, 2014 at 6:06 pm

I really like this informative article Elaine. I’m 32 and learning now, I always feel people are judging me esp. since I live in California; but reading your article and Kristi’s comment gives me comfort and encouragement. It’s just something I never learned, but I sure am excited to get my fins!

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