Water fear: 6 tips for adults learning to swim

betty ming liu Health, Inspiration 24 Comments

Yessssss!  I just went for a refreshing dip at the deep end of a pool.  That was me, overcoming my water fear and swimming. Me, bobbing happily at the  6’9″ water mark.

No panicky thrashing. No gasping for air. At last, I’ve experienced the liquid joy of weightlessness. Floating makes me feel like a fish. Or maybe, a fetus. My body memory has just been re-coded. It has reclaimed a missing piece of itself. A missing peace.

Even though I still can’t tread water, the adult me has already figured out how to embrace my inner terrified child. I am learning to swim in water — and in life. This is a big deal because I’ve always been afraid of drowning.

Water fear, since childhood

My troubles began the day I zoomed down a baby water slide at some beach and my parents failed to catch me. A good metaphor for my relationship with them. I went under, screaming and choking. But my real problem was my mom. Of course, who else? Oh, Betty. Be nice. After all, your mother’s dead. She always had a terror of water.

“Don’t be like me,” she’d say.

Sure, Mom.

On the upside, my water fear didn’t matter while I was growing up in Chinatown. Since most urban youth lack easy access to pools, many  of us never learn to swim. So it wasn’t like I was a misfit. Once, Mom signed up my sister and I for kids’ swimming lessons at a midtown Y. It was pointless because I kept sinking.

In February, Mom died at 92 of old age. But I heard her voice and her water fear the minute we landed for this little vacation on Sanibel Island, Fl. “The ocean is so big and I am so small,” she’d say whenever we were near a beach.

My private pool

Just steps from our oceanfront condo unit is a pretty pool. It’s surrounded by palm trees and looks out to a gorgeous view of the gulf’s rolling waves. I’ve been hitting that pool every day at  8 a.m., right when it opens. At that hour, the families-with-children aren’t out yet. No one’s watching as I struggle back and forth across the width of the pool. At first, I couldn’t make it from one side to the other without sputtering for air. Now, I’m practically gliding around on the deep end. Once in a while, I glance past the palm trees to the ocean’s horizon — and smile from my heart at Mom.

How to overcome water fear

Here’s what I’ve learned:

1) Be patient. It’s taken a lifetime to become afraid. Getting un-afraid will take even more time.

2) Get good advice. My dear friend Angela is a top-level aquatics instructor. A few summers ago, I took her adult swim class. She’s such a fantastic teacher that when I got into the pool this week, I suddenly remembered stuff she said about breathing and moving.

3) Find support. Angela’s class included a trial lawyer and the head of a major arts organization. Their eyes were bulging and they were shaking. Just like me. I’ve never forgotten that I’m not alone.

4) Create an inspiring set-up. This is the first time I’ve ever had a chance to swim in a pool all alone. That’s when I realized I needed privacy to feel un-selfconscious. No splashing kids to dodge. No watchful, friendly people offering me encouragement. I am also enjoying the pool’s resort-y glamour.

5) Practice a lot, consistently. Being here and swimming every morning has been a gift. The constant repetition moved me forward very quickly. I could see what was working, what wasn’t and then adjust by trying out new moves. Yesterday, I went back to the pool a second time. I’m going back again after I hit “send” on this post.

6) Relax. Life is short. As much as possible, try to make growing up fun.


I had no idea swimming was so great

P.S. — If you want to see photos and read about the most gorgeous pool I’ve ever swam in, click HERE.  :)



Comments 24

  1. Post

    thanks, joy, your blog looks great too — wow. i only wish i could read portuguese! btw, i’m serious about getting my daughter and i out in the world more. next year i want to go to brazil and will need your advice. :)

  2. i am proud of you. being uncomfortable in water is one of the things we do NOT have in common. however, with a fear of what’s below, i never touch bottom. here’s to treading water together one of these days.

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  4. Betty,

    First so proud that you overcame your fear. After graduation I relearned how to swim and it really has come in handy not only for the exercise part but also stress relief. Being underwater for me is better than any drink, drug etc. Check out the city pools if you want to swim year round!

    1. Post

      thanks, ivan! glad you’ve discovered swimming too! i can relate; i did actually get a different feeling today, this real sense of peace in being one with the water. i hope i can find a way to keep swimming when i get home to the ‘burbs.

  5. Congrats, Betty! That’s awesome! Another pleasure of being able to swim is lounging, which might be better for you when the pool *is* crowded. Grab a pool “noodle” or raft and bob around in the water for a while to cool off. Enjoy the buoyancy. Repeat.

  6. BETTY!!!!!

    Your site is so fabulous! I absolutely love the colors and the feel of it. Your header is beyond artistic and as unique as you are! Great job!

    Glad to have you back.


  7. Post

    ooooh, “lounging.” what a great concept. maybe i can try it since i’m no longer petrified whenever a little water splashes past my chin. thanks for the suggestion, laura! glad you like the new look here too.

    and kellie, thanks for checking in! so glad you’re back too. ivan, i think these tips here are gonna help me get thru other things — like maybe dating again (!)

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  9. Who knew? Your mom and mine another connection. LOVE that you LOVE swimming. Now I have to take you to my favorite mountain lake. xoxo

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  10. Betty, I overcame that fear at 27 when I took the initiative to seek private lessons when I used to work for NYSC – believe me, I totally get it! My only regret is that I haven’t gotten the chance to experience the deep end yet, as NYSC has shallow pools and I unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to swim for a couple years…long story. But I am confident that when the time comes I will be able to finally face the deep end with a confidence that I never even had in the shallow end. Water equalizes us all!

    Next stop: finally learning how to ride a bike! ;-)

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  11. oh my! you made me believe it’s not too late… when I say I can’t swim, people either look at me like I was a total dummy, or laugh hysterically, even my better half stared at me, mouth wide open, eyebrows up, then let out a “go learn”!

    You know the must funny about it? My mom was actually the opposite of your mom. She was a swimming trainer in communist Vietnam, so not the kind of teacher you mess with!

    My trauma is due to… adults and asian education.

    1. My parents always made me swallow/breathe too much water while bathing me.
    2. Once, my father decided it was time to put me in a swimming pool I hadn’t a foothold in. I started crying. He spanked me in front of everyone, and put me in the water again. Traumatizing.
    3. I got ill, and had to have an operation, so bye bye swimming lessons in school for 6 weeks. When I came back, the other kids were swimming quite well, and the teacher was a hysterical brat who forced me to put my head in the water and yelled on me when I was trying to swim like a dog.

    All adults. All yelling.

    My mom did a great work to help me swimming, encouraging me a lot, but it still did not help. I can’t swim more than 5 minutes… But I like being in the water, and even go sailing with one of my uncles (which freaks Momma out, knowing that wearing a life jacket blocks my moves, I don’t want to hear about them)

    But your blog gives me hope. I guess at 21, it’s still not too late. You don’t know how grateful I am to you right now!

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      i took a class at the local swimming pool where i live. it was for adults only and was offered only for that one summer. so lucky that i was able to be in it! look for a class targeted to adult swimmers. it will make a difference. private lessons might help too. good luck!

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