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Water fears gone in a splash

Jeff Krieger's students tentatively dip toes and dunk faces as they face - and overcome - their aquatic phobias.

Published November 8, 2004

[Times photos: Douglas R. Clifford]
Jeff Krieger of Dunedin helps Ruth Milano of Dunedin float Wednesday during Krieger's S.O.A.P and Water course at the Golda Meir/Kent Jewish Center pool in Clearwater. "I waited all of these years," Milano told Krieger at one of their classes. "Where were you?" Krieger usually offers classes to groups of four to six people.
Krieger hugs Milano after she puts her face in the water and blows bubbles Wednesday. "I couldn't believe it. It was so relaxing and so beautiful," Milano said after putting her face in for the first time. At right is Sherry Priester of Dunedin, whose phobia sometimes caused friction in her marriage before she took the class.
S.O.A.P. and Water class is offered by appointment at Golda Meir/Kent Jewish Center, 2010 Greenbriar Blvd., Clearwater. Eight-week sessions cost $195 for members and $210 for nonmembers. For information, call 736-1494.

Her hands were shaking. Her heart was pounding. She wasn't sure if she'd survive.

Standing in 31/2 feet of water, gripping the pool wall, 75-year-old Ruth Milano was about to do something she'd never done before.

She held her breath, dunked her face in the pool, counted to three and whipped her face out of the water. Her eyes were wide. Her mouth was open. "I couldn't believe it. It was so relaxing and so beautiful," Milano said.

Until last week, Milano was petrified of the water. Sure, she'd stand in the kiddie end of the pool, but she wouldn't venture farther.

"If I can't touch the bottom I won't go. I have that fear always. I just panic. I feel like I'm going to drown," Milano said.

That's what convinced Milano, who has lived in Florida since 1983, to try out Jeff Krieger's class.

A few years ago, Krieger, a mental health counselor and American Red Cross Safety instructor, designed the program called S.O.A.P. and Water, or Strategies for Overcoming Aquatic Phobias. He was inspired by one of his young students, he said.

"His parents asked me to teach him how to swim and he dug his fingernails in my neck," Krieger said.

Krieger taught the course in New York before moving here in August. He usually offers classes to small groups of four to six people. However, children benefit more from private lessons, he said.

"The first thing I try to establish is that it's not their fault," Krieger said. "It's about perceptions and realities."

There is little research on aquatic phobias, Krieger said. But according to the National Institute of Mental Health, specific phobias affect an estimated 6.3-million adult Americans. Because the intensity of phobias varies from individual to individual, Krieger said he alters the format for each class.

Last week, Milano joined three women with similar anxieties at the Golda Meir/Kent Jewish Center. Krieger started this class with a five-minute pep talk and asked the class to share their feelings.

"I feel very nervous. It's been very hard for me. I have a 3-year-old in the water and her mom's afraid," Danielle Corbin, 28, said.

Dana Fitzgerald, 42, said her fear may have been shaped by a trauma she can't even remember.

"My mother tried to drown me when I was 2," Fitzgerald said. The terror lingered long after her mother was out of her life.

Fitzgerald's case may not be common, Krieger said. Most people with phobias cannot connect their fear to a specific incident.

While he sometimes starts students in a hot tub with a rubber ducky, Krieger started this class in the shallow end of the pool.

He asked them to dip their faces in and think about something that always makes them smile.

Fitzgerald dipped her face briefly, but she wasn't smiling when she came up for air.

She and the others were starting at square one, overwhelmed by activities most swimmers take for granted.

They asked Krieger how they should breathe. Krieger told them that breathing is different for swimmers. They should inhale with their mouths above the water and exhale through their noses below it, he said.

When Krieger asked for a volunteer, Milano was first in line.

He rested the back of her head on his shoulder and her feet popped up to the water's surface.

"Did you know you were floating?" he asked her.

"No," she said in amazement. "I've never done that before."

"How does one float?" Fitzgerald asked.

Krieger explained that the more relaxed they are, the better they'll float. He also told them that it takes more energy to stay under the water than rise to the top.

One of the last exercises was the most challenging. One by one, he rested his hands on their shoulders and gently guided them to seated positions on the bottom of the pool, before letting them bob back up.

"Don't push me," Fitzgerald pleaded.

"I'm not going to push you," Krieger assured her.

He let Fitzgerald do the exercise herself.

After class, all the women admitted that they avoided situations that put them face to face with their fears.

All of her life, she really wanted to swim, Sherry Priester said. But like Milano, Priester, 58, wouldn't venture deeper than 3 or 4 feet, her hand clinging to the pool wall.

Now, with six lessons behind her, Priester was the class veteran, helping Krieger demonstrate the exercises like a pro.

Before she took the course, Priester's phobia sometimes caused friction in her marriage, she said. As a divemaster, her husband, Tom, thought nothing of jumping into open water on search and recovery missions. Sherry sometimes became hysterical when children splashed her in the shallow end of the pool.

"I couldn't understand," Tom Priester, 56, said. "I was going out there, and she was afraid to put her feet in the water."

By attending class with her, he was able to make sense of her fear, he said.

With just one class under their belts, Sherry Priester's classmates knew they had some obstacles ahead of them.

Still, Milano was euphoric.

"I waited all of these years," Milano told Krieger. "Where were you?"

Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or at


S.O.A.P. and Water class is offered by appointment at Golda Meir/Kent Jewish Center, 2010 Greenbriar Blvd., Clearwater. Eight-week sessions cost $195 for members and $210 for nonmembers. For information, call 736-1494.

[Last modified November 8, 2004, 00:36:25]

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