Conquering fear, one splash at a time

Patient instruction helps anxious kids and adults learn to swim.

By Sharon Kennedy Wynne
Published May 28, 2007

It was time to swim, and 9-year-old Nikia Snelling was in tears. Third-graders at Bay Vista Fundamental School in St. Petersburg were at a community pool to get a weeklong series of swim lessons, and Nikia was among the half-dozen nonswimmers.

Tears rolled down her cheeks as she sat on the edge of the pool and dipped her feet in the water, waiting for instructions.

Just 40 minutes later, after a series of water games and gradual coaxing, she would be swimming with a kickboard and even taking a few strokes to the wall by herself.

By the end of the week, "I was swimming even farther, " she said.

With swimming season upon us, people who are afraid of the water are confronted with their fears almost every day, and swim instructors have the delicate job of patiently teaching them to trust themselves.

Water phobia can be as problematic as being left out of a school pool party or as traumatic as it was for New Orleans residents who saw their worst fear pouring in through the front door.

Florida leads the nation in drowning deaths for children under 5 and is third in drownings for all ages, according to the state Department of Health.

Those scary statistics are the reason Nikia's physical education teacher, Sue Maratea, insists on at least a week of swim lessons for all of her students every May at the Lake Vista Recreation Center pool in St. Petersburg.

In the 30 years Maratea has been conducting swim lessons, she has never had a child she couldn't eventually coax into the water.

"The longest it ever took was the fourth day, but I've never had one who didn't come around, " Maratea said.

"But you can't just push. You have to let them get the feel of it and want to do this because it's important for themselves."

Adults can take longer to teach than children in many cases, said Heidi Arft, aquatics director of the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg. The mental obstacles are tougher to overcome than physical ones, she said.

"Children, if they have no fear, you can see them swimming pretty quickly, " Arft said, "but with adults you have to start in the shallow end and help them get comfortable and slowly build up their confidence. It can take a couple of months."

Susan Mueller's mother was afraid of the water, and that fear transferred down to her daughter, who at age 50 took private swim lessons through Water Elements Swim School in Brandon. In addition to weekend classes, the school holds vacation sessions whose students take a week's vacation and spend it learning to swim.

"I took several vacation classes starting in 2004, " Mueller said, "because I had lot of anxiety to overcome."

Now Mueller is a teacher at the swim school, with a special empathy for her students.

"Some of these people were thrown in a pool as a child or fell into a lake and were underwater, and these fears are deep, " Mueller said. So that's why a slow, self-paced lesson plan is better in the long run.

Here are some tips from swim instructors on overcoming a fear of water:

START EARLY. You can lay the groundwork when the kids are babies, playing games such as blowing bubbles in the water to get your swimmer used to getting his face wet.

HAVE FUN. Sit on the side and kick and splash the teacher. Try bobbing up and down in the water while holding on to the side. Or play a game where the child moves hand over hand around the perimeter of the pool next to you saying "Chugga-chugga, choo-choo." Even the most water-averse kids seem to like that game.

INVEST SOME TIME. The more a person is in the water, the more quickly he or she adapts to it. So make a point of visiting a beach or pool at least twice a week for 30 minutes each, but every day is better. You don't have to plunge into the deep end. Familiarity makes a difference.

WORK ON FLOATING. Practice in the shallow end, with an experienced swimmer to support you. This is useful because if you fall in the water and can turn on your back and float, you will be safe until someone can get you.

GET PEER SUPPORT. Learning in groups works well for both kids and adults, so try swim classes. But only do what is fun for you.

Back at the Lake Vista pool, after a series of games, splashing and bobs, it was Nikia's turn to hang on to a dumbell-shaped float. The lifeguard asked the kids one by one to hold it out in front of them, put their face in the water and kick over to him. The kids' eyes got wide and there was muttering about not liking that idea.

But each child did as told, one by one, some better than others. Nikia was the last one, and she did it perfectly, arms out front, face in the water and kicking like mad.

She came up to huge cheers from the teachers watching nearby. On her way back to the wall, her swim instructor whispered, "You can do this, " and he let her swim the last two strokes to the wall by herself.


Swim lessons

For information about swim lessons, call your nearest public pool or go to www.suncoastymca.org or www.tampaymca.org. Lessons are often offered to people of all ages.