Transcript: Swimming Lessons

 Note: Episodes of Outside/In are made as pieces of audio, and some context and nuance may be lost on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors.

 Sam Evans-Brown: You’re listening to Outside/In. I’m Sam Evans-Brown, today here with producers Daniela Allee…

Daniela Allee: Hello

Sam Evans-Brown: ...and Justine Paradis.

Justine Paradis: Yoohoo!

[Sounds of a baby playing in bathtub]

Sam Evans-Brown: Yoohoo is the appropriate response in all circumstances.

Justine Paradis: Oh yeah! [laughter] Very professional.

[More sounds of laughing baby]

Sam Evans-Brown: Oh, and this is my baby in the bathtub.

[Uproarious baby laughter]

Sam Evans-Brown: The hilarious thing in question here is a turkey baster, which he is playing with in the water.

Justine Paradis: Oh my god.

Daniela Allee: How old is Hugo?

Sam Evans-Brown: He is 15 months now.

Justine Paradis:  I think that we should have just a hard pivot on the on the show today to just two hours of rude noises and bathtime fun, instead of this.

Sam Evans-Brown: Hugo does indeed loves water, that is his first word. He fell in the pond last week aXnd thought it was hilarious, despite the fact of being totally soaked and cold.

Justine Paradis: Yeah, and you know, you could actually start Hugo on swim lessons right now. Have you guys started him yet?

Sam Evans-Brown: Is that true?

Justine Paradis:  Yeah! The American Association of Pediatrics just updated their recommendations -- saying you can start kids as early as age 1 in swim lessons - they used to say age 4. Others say even earlier... Margaret Mead, anthropologist in New Guinea in the 1930s observed infants learning to walk and swim very early.

Daniela Allee: So, yeah and all of this Justine and I have been thinking about how people form relationships with to water and how that happens over time, and just how people learn to swim.

Justine Paradis:  Yeah, for me this started a few months ago when I was home visiting my family -- I grew up on Nantucket, which is an island off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. And I’d brought a recorder, because I’ll do that just for fun -- I like to record conversations with the people I love, and get their voices

Sam Evans-Brown: Strangers….

Justine Paradis: Yeah I’ll just accost people on the street. And this time, I recorded a conversation with my mom — her name’s Jenny. I wanted to talk with her about swimming because it’s been this constant for her since she was a kid

Jenny Paradis: I don’t know. I just needed  it. It’s part of my identity. I love swimming…

Justine Paradis:  She swam competitively in college, coached the high school team, she does open water swims…

Daniela Allee: ...and at one point, you were talking about ducking waves… so when a wave is about to break, you dodge it by diving under it.  

[Sounds of ocean waves and music]

Jenny Paradis: So, ducking the waves, when you're a little kid, it's the first thing you wanna learn how to do. You're afraid of them, you've been afraid of them, crashing on you. It's intimidating. Sometimes in Nantucket, it can be a very light, easy-going, frothy wash. A wave washing over you, and if you try to catch it, it doesn’t even go... you can't catch it because it's too weak. And then there are other waves that are just incredibly powerful, and you don’t really know when you first get in, which kind of surf you're getting into.  

Justine Paradis:  But the thing I really want to tell you about is when it goes wrong. Because if you don’t time it right, you can get boiled — which is a really freaky experience -- the waves pushes you under, and sort of holds you down.

Jenny Paradis:  They get your feet and suddenly they’re dragging you to shore. It’s like combustion almost.

Justine Paradis: And because you haven’t prepared to be caught underwater, you haven’t taken a deep breath. You’re being tossed around, don’t know which way is up, sometimes you’re being dragged or pressed into the sand on the bottom so you end up scraped up -- this is honestly what drowning might feel like. So I remember getting boiled a bunch as a kid, and when I’d finally get out I’d be really freaked out. But the thing is, I lived on an island where most beaches were public and access was free — you didn’t even have to pay to park — so we would go again and again, and if something scary happened, you could take a break, and go back in when the surf was calmer,  and then return when you were ready — but I can imagine if you only went once a year or something… your last memory is kind of a scary one, so maybe you don’t get to develop that natural, slow relationship with the water, and you never get to develop a sort of sense of play in those waves.

Justine Paradis:  So one more thing from my mom: a couple years ago, she started teaching learn-to-swim courses for adults.

Jenny Paradis: I get these people that have had this dream their whole life to swim… they got... somehow, eluded them. One lady from Jamaica, for some reason she didn't learn, all of her other siblings knew how to swim but for some reason she didn’t learn. And I think it was because there was some sort of fear event that happened at one point when she was a child. I was working with her and I started to get her to just play. Like I said, why don't you just go down and float underwater, and blow bubbles, and just kind of have fun. Watch the bubbles, and pretend you're a kid! And it’s really fun, to realize that’s how… or understand that's how I learned to swim, and how children learned to swim, and how hard it is to do that when you’re older.

[Sounds of baby in the tub. Outside/In Theme music rises slowly]

Sam Evans-Brown: This is Outside/In - a show  about the natural world and how we use it. I’m Sam Evans-Brown. Swimming is something that is more or less a part of human experience, depending on who you are, where you are, when you are alive in history. Today, producers Justine Paradis and Daniela Allee have two stories that explore our relationship with the water... about why and how people -- do or don’t -- learn to swim?

[Sound of wave crashing. Music sounds like it’s underwater]

Ebony Rosemond: For me water is magical. I'm... I'm definitely in love with the ocean.

Daniela Allee: This is Ebony Rosemond.


Ebony Rosemond: My husband and I have a ritual where, it's something that I witnessed for the first time when I was living in Brazil, at the stroke of midnight, everyone rushes into the water and it’s always a natural body of water.

Justine Paradis:  So Ebony loves the water, and her daughter actually started swimming when she was just 3 years old. She joined the swim team, and now she’s a strong competitive swimmer.

Daniela Allee: They live in Prince George’s County, Maryland, which is a historically black county.

Ebony Rosemond: It’s the wealthiest African American county in the country. So for us, on a local level, we see lots of black swimmers, here in Prince George’s County. And my daughter’s team, Theresa Banks Swim Club, which is historically an African American Swim Club- was the champion of the league for like 8 years in a row.

Justine Paradis: As Ebony’s daughter got better and better — when she was 11, she was the fastest 11-year-old in the country at the 50-free — they going to competitions further afield.

Ebony Rosemond: And we’re just you know proud swim parents we didn't really know that much about the sport. We honestly didn't really understand how good she was, but we started to notice that we were the only African-American family at the meets she was going to. Like, where are all of the other little black swimmers? Where are the black parents? So on the way home from a meet, my daughter googled “Black Kids Swim”. And google returned nothing but negative results.

[Media Clip] Olympian Maritza McClendon: It’s a crazy statistic, African American children are 5 times more likely to drown than other children.

Ebony Rosemond: We found the USA Swimming statistic that said at that time that African-Americans... 70 percent of African-Americans lacked basic swim skills; the horrific story where five or six kids in Louisiana drowned because they were swimming in open water and they were trying to save one another, and one after another they just drowned.

Daniela Allee: These stories and statistics are real, but they also reinforce a stereotype that black kids don’t know how to swim. And then there was the case of the 2016 Red Cross poster illustrating pool safety. The poster depicts behavior that is COOL and NOT COOL. Here’s Larry Wilmore talking about it on his late night show.

[Media Clip] Larry Wilmore tape: Ok… Cool: white dad playing with his baby in the water. Not cool: black girl shoving a white girl into the pool?! Hey, Kwaneese from the projects, you leave sweet little Madison alone please! Okay what else? Cool: white girl standing at the diving board. Not cool: black boy diving OFF the diving board? You know they put diving boards in pools for diving, right? What, was he diving too blackly?

Daniela Allee: There are positive examples of elite black swimmers, like Olympians Maritza McClendon, Lia Neal, and Simone Manuel who was the first black individual gold medalist in 2016.

[Media clip of Simone Manuel winning gold medal]

Justine Paradis:  But even at the Olympics, you can catch a glimpse of a murky history. Three-time Olympic medalist Cullen Jones almost drowned when he was 5 years old, and his mother couldn’t help because she didn’t know how to swim either. So. What’s going on?

Kevin Dawson: There's a lot of these myths and stereotypes that developed... like one was that slave trade was so horrendous that it created this psychological scar that discouraged them from swimming

Daniela Allee: This is Kevin Dawson. He is a surfer, sailor, free diver and a swimmer.

Justine Paradis:  Kevin’s also a historian.

Kevin Dawson: I’m a historian of the African diaspora and Atlantic history at the University of California Merced.

Daniela Allee: As he started studying history, Kevin found first-hand accounts that the stereotype that black people can’t swim is a recent invention. Not all that long ago, at least relative to the grand sweep of history, in some parts of the world — the reverse was true


Daniela Allee: Kevin studied observations of coastal peoples in Subsaharan Africa — from Senegal to Angola, and communities in the interior, as Europeans traveled up rivers into what’s now Mali and the Congo River basin.

Justine Paradis: These are mostly first-hand European accounts from ship logs and diaries starting in the 15th century.

Kevin Dawson: The accounts of africans diving into rivers and into the ocean to fight crocodiles and sharks with knives or to fight hippopotamuses with spears.

Daniela Allee: He also found descriptions of African peoples free-diving.

Kevin Dawson: To great depths, to 60, 80, 100 feet deep. Which Europeans were not able to do at that time.

Daniela Allee:  Meanwhile, the colonizers — the Europeans — largely did not share these fundamentals swim skills. They were basically still doing the doggypaddle. Kevin points to a few reasons for this: a belief that swimming can spread disease, and some Catholic officials wrote that because people swam nude, swimming was immoral.

Kevin Dawson: So they go to Africa, and they see Africans doing versions of the crawl, or the freestyle. And they’re really surprised because they instantly recognized that it was a much faster, much stronger stroke that allowed the Africans to swim longer and faster than they ever could and that’s really… I mean it… to kind of to wrap their sense around african ability to swim and their own inabilities to swim, they would say you know swimming is animalistic… and this is proof africans are animalistic or bestial.

Justine Paradis:  But of course while these skills might have been seen “animalistic”, they were still valuable.

Daniela Allee: The Spanish used slaves for pearl diving. And later, in the Caribbean, slaves were used to salvaging gold off shipwrecks in the Caribbean, sometimes worth billions of dollars in today’s economy.

Justine Paradis: But there’s an idea that plantation owners in the American South stopped enslaved people from swimming, and Kevin’s research suggests it wasn’t actually too  common.

Kevin Dawson: Enslavers saw swimming as a way of preserving their property, by preventing slaves from drowning.


Daniela Allee: So, enslaved people kept swimming on Southern plantations. What really stopped African Americans from swimming was what happened after slavery.

Kevin Dawson: You basically have two things going on: first you have the rise of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan… and so as black people began to demand rights during Reconstruction and then after Reconstruction, you had this rise of lynchings… which is kind of spectacle murder of black people. And lynched bodies were oftentimes discarded in waterways. And they were discarded in waterways that African Americans were using... in rivers and lakes black people were swimming in.

Justine Paradis:  Perhaps the most well-known example was Emmett Till, who was 14 years-old when he was brutally murdered after he’d been accused of flirting with a white woman.  His body was dumped in the Tallahatchie River, and pulled out three days later.

Kevin Dawson: Often times, black people were congregating along and under the railroad tressels that span rivers. And so these railroad tressels became — if you will — kind of contested spaces. So black people had been jumping off of them, diving off of them. And so as white southerners were forcing black people off of beaches, they began to lynch, to hang black people from these bridges, and these bridges then became known as lynching bridges.

Ebony Rosemond: there’s a legacy of exclusion and fear surrounding the swimming pool in America.

Justine Paradis: This is Ebony Rosemond again.

Ebony Rosemond: during segregation and into integration, we were refused entrance into safe places to swim. Whether that was a pool funded by their own tax money, or a beach front.

Daniela Allee: And as beaches started to become segregated by race

Kevin Dawson: What white americans did want to do was to have white women... semi-nude white women to be in the same space as semi-nude black men. The incident that sparked the 1919 race riot of Chicago was a black teenager in an inner tube inadvertently floated from a black beach onto a white beach and a white mob pelted him with bricks and stones, and he ended up drowning, and that kicked off that 1919 race riot.

Ebony Rosemond: Out of a desire to protect their children, older African-Americans prevented their children from going to these dangerous places. But of course everyone loves the water, everyone wants to swim, especially when it's hot. So children would find other places to swim. Drainage ditches, unmonitored open water. So then you have a growing drowning rate in the African-American community which increased the fear. So whether it's out of fear of drowning, out of fear of a child drowning, or out of fear of being harassed, black people have in some populations more than others avoided the water.

Justine Paradis:  Ebony wanted to do something to change that. So she started an organization rooted from the phrase her daughter had googled after a swim meet: Black Kids Swim. It’s a nonprofit, with the mission of getting more kids involved in competitive swimming. They connect kids with summer swim teams, facilitate scholarships, and even designed their own hair care products specifically designed for tight curl patterns seen in a lot of black hair.

Daniela Allee: But to achieve their goal of getting more kids involved in competitive swimming, Ebony and Black Kids Swim couldn’t ignore history.

Ebony Rosemond: They also want to know why am I afraid of swimming? Why did my parents keep me out of the pool? Why aren’t there more swimmers?

Justine Paradis:  You have to talk about history to reroute it. So Black Kids Swim started including listening sessions and workshops in their programming, with the parents and community in Prince George’s County and Washington DC.

Daniela Allee: The idea was to bring into the open this historical trauma, or collective memory -- which sometimes, is actually not just a memory.  

Ebony Rosemond: Actually here in Prince George’s County there was an incident— and it’s not unique — but a neighborhood pool... a community association that was denying membership to African-American families. And of course the kids wanted to go anyway. So they said— you know with the typical courage of a child — We'll I'm going anyway. And their father said, “fool don't you go to that pool they'll drown you.” And that was simply a father trying to protect his child from a dangerous or at the very least embarrassing situation.

Justine Paradis:  AndI think both of us are struck by this, that you’ve built into your programming, like even though it’s about competitive swimming, but you’re creating this space for people to share stories in a public but safe forum. Like… is it cathartic for people? What do you observe about the emotion of the room?

Ebony Rosemond: Yes it's cathartic.


Ebony Rosemond: And the emotions in the room sway, from shock over the statistics and the lack of participation, and then to very somber, when people start to share specific stories with names, and dates, and specific locations. We did a workshop like this in Washington D.C. a few months ago and a woman shared how she watched her husband drown on a family vacation. And after that of course she learned how to swim. She made sure her children learn how to swim. It's very cathartic. It's very healing for a person to be able to share that story to receive love from the community and receive encouragement. And I’m sure that after she shared her story and more importantly shared how she decided to grow from that horrific incident, it strengthened other people in the audience to do the same.  


Ebony Rosemond: I don’t know, now they have a shared experience. And then towards the end of the presentation when we begin to highlight the successful elite black swimmers in the sport whether they're American, African, or Caribbean…

[Media Clips from professional swimming]

Ebony Rosemond: … then the pride begins to come out. And and we encourage them that of course they can do this too. And the kids begin to get excited

Daniela Allee: There are also national efforts from groups like the YMCA the CDC and the Red Cross to raise pool safety awareness and improve access to swim lessons in areas where drowning rates are above average. But that’s different than what Black Kids Swim is doing — giving new swimmers a reason to be proud, and building a community. This spring, Black Kids Swim is running their first ever “Skills Camp”. And this year was the 17th annual National Black Heritage Championship Swim Meet, in Cary, North Carolina, which Ebony calls the “family reunion” of the black swim community.

Justine Paradis:  And Kevin Dawson, the historian and free-diver, he’s also involved in getting black kids comfortable in the water. He talks to kids and parents to dispel myths, and last year, he helped about 100 kids learn to surf in California.

Ebony Rosemond: So we’re happy to say that just three years after the founding of Black kids swim if you google Black Kids Swim now, you’ll see only positive stories or definitely in the majority positive stories. Interviews, highlights of young black swimmers who are awesome things in and out of the pool. We’re just proud in our own little way we have been able to make a real difference in what people think when they hear the words or enter the words into a search engine: Black Kids Swim.

Sam Evans-Brown: Getting kids access to swim lessons is an obvious way to prevent drowning… but  what if you never learned to swim as a kid? After the break, a personal story about what it takes to learn something that everybody else takes for granted.

[Advertisement Break]

[sounds of bath tub water running and baby giggles]

Sam Evans-Brown: This is Outside/In. I’m Sam Evans-Brown. This hour we’ve been hearing stories of learning how to swim. I’m here with Justine Paradis. Well, we’re not here together. Justine where are you?

Justine Paradis: I’m home on Nantucket Island, sitting on a truck, on a windy island.

Sam Evans-Brown: I’m sitting next to a young man, who’s in the tub, misbehaving.

[baby laughter]


Sam Evans-Brown: So justine, do you remember learning how to swim?

Justine Paradis: Barely. My mom would bring to the beach as a baby and she told I ate quite a lot of sand. And then in the pool, really just visions, little snatches but not much of the details. Where’d you learn to swim?

Sam Evans-Brown: My first memory of swimming, swimming, I swam without those arm inflatable swimmy things.

Justine Paradis: I guess what we have in common is we both learned as a kid.

Sam Evans-Brown: Right, and so next, we’re going to hear from producer Daniela Allee, who did not learn as a kid and had to learn as an adult.

[sounds of swimming in an indoor pool]

Justine Paradis: How does it feel today?

Daniela Allee: Uh… I feel a little more out of breath than normal. But. Ooh. Yeah. Feels nice, the water’s warm.

Daniela Allee: I’m a bad swimmer.

Daniela Allee: Until about a year ago, before I started taking lessons,  the doggy paddle was my strongest stroke. I could tread water just fine, but in open water, even in the deep end of the pool, I didn’t feel safe. And I probably wasn’t.  

I had taken lessons when I was a kid; but swimming was never a family affair.

Marta Otero:  Si soy Marta Lucía Otero soy colombiana. Llegué aquí a los Estados Unidos. Creo  que hace 23 24 años.

Daniela Allee: This is my mom. I called her because one thing I learned while we were reporting this story is that if your parent can’t swim, it’s likely that you won’t know how to swim either. Only 13% of kids with non-swimming parents learn how. And neither of my parents -- really knew.

Daniela Allee: They both grew up in the southwest of Colombia in the middle of the mountains…My mom didn’t live near a river and well, the ocean is not a short drive away.

Marta Otero: Generalmente no tuve experiencias positivas con la natación

Daniela Allee: Growing up, she and her three sisters would cool off in a shallow part of a nearby brook in her hometown, and they taught themselves how to float --or basically, not drown--   

Marta Otero: Solamente era, o flotabamos o nos hundiamos.

Daniela Allee: But even though she got a little bit of formal instruction at school -- the pool she and her classmates were learning didn’t have water treatment parents were concerned about their kids health and the classes stopped.

Marta Otero: O sea, no era algo que hacía parte de nuestra cultura. Nadar no era importante, montar bicicleta no era importante. Entonces hubo muchas cosas y muchas habilidades que no desarrollamos por que no eran necesarias.

Daniela Allee: Swimming just wasn’t important; not a lot of people did it: none of her 31 classmates knew how to swim.

Daniela Allee: When I told my mom I was going to start taking swim lessons, she said, “que bueno, mija.” That’ll be good in case something bad happens -- you’ll have a better chance of surviving.

Daniela Allee: My dad just thought it’d be a good thing to do.

Heber Vidal:  Bueno ya mi nombre es Heber Vidal

Daniela Allee: He had swim classes in school too, but …

Heber Vidal: Al principio del año a uno le decían clases de natación y ya cuando veía que nadie se ahogaba entonces se asumía que todo mundo sabía nadar y todo mundo era permitido lanzarse a la piscina.

Daniela Allee: Teachers saw nobody had drowned. So they assumed everyone could swim...there wasn’t a swim test or anything like that.

Daniela Allee: My dad did have fun around the water: his family would take picnics by the river; he and his classmates would sneak in their bikes to the school pool, race around and knock each other in…
Daniela Allee: But he didn’t really learn to swim. According to the red cross knowing how to swim means you can get into the water, take a breath, change positions, float, and swim about 25 yards to get out of the water safely.

Daniela Allee: In his swim class, all the kids were doing the doggy paddle.

Heber Vidal: Pero yo no entiendo por qué el estilo perrito nunca triunfó o fue llevado a los Juegos Olímpicos.

Daniela Allee: He says: I don’t understand why the doggy paddle was never brought to the Olympics.

Daniela Allee: Growing up, whenever we’d take trips to the ocean.. My parents always stayed very close to the beach...or when we’d go snorkeling, they’d stay on the boat, waving at us. My mom said she was too nervous to be in water where she couldn’t touch the bottom.  

Daniela Allee: So the association I saw to water from my parents was mostly hesitation, caution, and well, fear, and that’s something I’ve carried forward because whenever I went to pool parties, I’d stay in the shallow end watching other people have fun.


Daniela Allee: About two years ago,My husband and I were in Colombia on the Atlantic Coast, on vacation with my family.   I decided I had to give swimming a shot.

Daniela Allee: He and I were in a pool, in the shallow end and I wanted to know how to freestyle, so I asked him to show me how it’s done...because really, it could not be that hard.  

Daniela Allee: So he shows me a few strokes: he says just move your arms this way, and I start right away because I know I got this! I do not need more of a tutorial.

Daniela Allee: So I put my head in the water and I’m trying to move my arms but nothing makes sense. I come up gasping for air: and kind of wondering how anyone is able to do this.


Daniela Allee: One reason I’ve been told that people swim is because of the joy it gives them. And yeah, water can be fun..even if you can’t freestyle. But if you grow up, and never learn how to swim, that joy is tempered by something else: fear of getting in over your head. Or just embarrassing yourself -- staying back when everyone else is having fun. The longer you wait, the harder it is to jump in… My mom’s turning 50 this year. She tells me she wants to learn to swim, she wants to take classes. But...shes’ worried she’ll be the only adult who doesn’t know how. Those are the kind of feelings that can push people further away...but for others it’s what brings them to the pool for the first time: as adults. I wanted swimming to make sense. I wanted what I saw other people had in the water: a sense of freedom.

Ari Marks: I think this year alone there ’s been about just a little over 60 adults that have come through the program, which is absolutely incredible.

Daniela Allee: This is Ari Marks, my swim coach. She teaches at the Upper Valley Aquatic Center, where I’ve been taking swim lessons every winter and spring for the past two years.

Daniela Allee: do you think the fear is the same for children and adults in the water?

Ari Marks: Um, no. I think. It could be, but from what I’ve noticed with children, it’s more of a sensory thing. They don’t like how it feels. Who likes water up their nose? It’s like soda going to your brain. But with adults, I think there is more of a fear piece there. I want them to not be fearful in the water becaus swimming is such an amazing sport.  You can do it at any age.

Daniela Allee: Fear of drowning?

Ari Marks: Fear of drowning for sure. And just not being  comfortable

Sanjay Garg: I literally felt like a fish out of water. Literally.

Daniela Allee: This is Sanjay Garg -- he and his wife Sujatha were in my class - learning to swim together.

Sanjay Garg: I was swimming so close to the wall at the beginning. I would often scrape my fingers or my toes, and those concrete walls, they leave a nasty bruise. Not very often but it’s happened.

Daniela Allee: Sanjay and Sujatha are an interesting example because although they never learned to swim as kids, their daughters did -- they even swam competitively. Now their kids are grown, Sanjay and Sujatha are in their 50’s and they’re learning how to swim together. It was definitely Sujatha’s idea -- she convinced him to sign up.

Sanjay Garg:  Well I wouldn’t say convinced, I’d maybe say, twisted my arm enough. It’s one of these things - we take vacations on the beach, and not knowing how to swim, it somewhat restricts are enjoyment of the ocean.

Daniela Allee: Sanjay grew up in New Delhi, where he says pools were inaccessible or expensive. And he says his first goal is to lose that fear of the water.

Sanjay Garg: Early on, we did some practice diving just from the edge of the pool, getting a few feet under the surface of the water. That was quite amazing. You get a totally different view, of course the swimming pool is totally clear. You can see to the other end of it and under water. All my thought was to just get back up. But just a few seconds under there was quite fun.

Daniela Allee:  Our swim lessons are structured to start slow -- and that’s the same for adults or kids.  We began with exercises that get you comfortable in the water: back floats, deep water bobs, kicking, taking breaths, and then moved on to other exercises…

Daniela Allee: But something I did not anticipate when I signed up for lessons is how cerebral this learning process is.  

[sounds of breathing, internal monologue playing underneath: take a breath, breathe, turn head right, turn head left, not too stiff, elbow high, stay relaxed, take a breath, kick from hips]

Daniela Allee: A lot of us don’t really have to think twice about all the little movements that make up taking a step or throwing a ball.

Daniela Allee: Take freestyle: there’s knowing how to breathe, and getting comfortable turning your head to the right and left; getting your elbow high enough and your hand not to stiff but not too loose as it enters the water.  

Daniela Allee: And you’re trying to make this stroke powerful! With the right kicking motion, and pulling your hand through the water.

Daniela Allee: And the cherry on top is trying to stay relaxed in the water while trying to make sure all these movements actually happen…

[pool sounds rise]

Ari Marks: So backstroke is a long axis stroke. We roll on this long axis like a line through our body. Sshoulders and hips and kick all need to match up. But your head stays looking up at the ceiling - like if I was talking to Keith, and I keep rolling back and forth like this, and I just keep staring at you.

Justine Paradis: Like an owl.

Daniela Allee: Like an owl, oooh!

Daniela Allee: So much of this learning process is hard. I don’t feel like a kid, frolicking and giggling in the water. I feel frustrated because the movements don’t click. I’m tired after just 25 yards.  I feel scared when I get breathless at the end of a lap…

Daniela Allee: The fact of the matter is you’re just bad for quite some time. And a lot of the time it’s not that fun. It’s more of a grind.

Daniela Allee: I see kids in pools, in lakes at the beach, and even after two years of lessons, it still doesn’t feel like I have what they’ve learned so easily.

Daniela Allee: But every now and again, you get this little glimpse… of what it might be like to feel natural. To feel like a swimmer.

Daniela Allee: Last year, Ari made us do an exercise. We had to do the backstroke, while balancing a rubber duck on our foreheads.

[internal monologue then fades into the background: shoulders straight, breathe, kick from hips, eyes to the ceiling, relax]  

Daniela Allee: I wasn’t doing it perfectly: My backstroke wasn’t a straight line and maybe my kick came more from my knees than my hips. But I felt this burgeoning sense of power as I swam: my neck muscles weren’t too tight, my breathing was controlled, and I was just enjoying the water for a moment. And through those 50 yards in the pool, I wasn’t learning to swim. I wasn’t thinking about how to move each part of my body. I wasn’t a collection of parts, jerking through the deep end.

I was just a rubber duck, floating along, at home in the water.