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Adult swim: Many find it's never too late to start learning

The Charlotte Observer

The moment brings laughter now, but it sure wasn't funny then.

Michelle Simmons swam to the middle of the deep end at the YMCA pool and froze. She was too tired to go all of the way to the wall. She was too scared to turn around and swim back to the shallow end.

She yelled for help. A lifeguard fished her out of the pool.

Simmons almost quit taking swimming lessons on that dreadful Sunday. As her friends from Tri It for Life triathlete training program reminded her, she'd come so far. Simmons was one month into swim lessons in preparation for her first triathlon. She was also a month into starting a life in which she was no longer afraid of water.

Until this spring, Simmons was among the 37 percent of American adults who can't swim the length of a 25-yard pool. She was one of the 46 percent who are afraid to go into water over their head.

According to federal figures, an average of 10 people drown each day in the United States, and the inability to swim is the No. 1 "risk factor."

The YMCA of Greater Charlotte offers 550 adult swim classes per year. The Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation recently added a second weekday adult swim class at one recreation center. Spring and summer are so busy that there is typically a wait list, according to Patricia A. Daly, Aquatic Recreation Coordinator/Supervisor.

Daly first noticed the increase in adult learners after 9/11.

"Many older career people changed jobs and wanted to either go back to teaching lessons or even lifeguard(ing). Kind of a life-is-too-short thing," she said. "Now it is people who always put it off, are now making the time to learn either for their kids or themselves."

Katie Adams, 71, is one of those people who is learning for herself. She's been taking lessons for nearly two years. When she first started she wanted to learn to swim so that she could save herself or help someone else. Now, she's trying to swim well enough to swim the length of the pool without stopping. She did it once, but she wants to be consistent.

Kathy Tingle, 54, also learned for herself. "I didn't know I had a fear of water until I tried to learn how to swim," she said. Swim lessons were a recent birthday gift to herself.

Tingle and Adams were two of the four women taking lessons at the Johnston YMCA on a recent Tuesday. They're part of the reason Johnston's program has grown dramatically in recent years.

Danielle Rader, aquatics and sports director, said adult swim private lessons have grown by more than 150 percent from two years ago. She expects the classes to continue to grow as "People are realizing this is life and death," Rader said.

Teaching adults is different from teaching children, Rader said. Adults bring different learning styles and sometimes acute fears based on previous experience that most children don't have.

When it comes to adults, it's really about making them super-comfortable and earning their trust, Rader said. Teaching adults requires the instructor to rationalize each exercise and reassure the students that they are getting better. With kids, it's ice cream cones, blowing bubbles and fun.

With adults, she said, "Something as simple as putting your head underwater could take two lessons."

Simmons can relate to that. "I was definitely afraid of water. If I could not touch the bottom, I wasn't going any farther," she said.

That changed this year. She didn't quit after the day she panicked in the pool. Now, she calls herself an "advanced bubble blower."

She completed her first triathlon sprint by swimming the 200 yards on her back in 12 minutes. She's pumped for another triathlon this fall. Maybe she'll be coordinated enough to swim that one face down.