By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
“I really was bowled over. People poured their hearts out. They related, not just about swimming, but about overcoming fears in general.”
That’s from Kurt Streeter, reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Earlier this summer, Kurt wrote a beautiful and moving article about learning how to swim. Kurt is 45-years-old, and he never really learned how to adequately swim. Overcoming his aquatic fears, Kurt wrote about the experience as he took a week-long swim class. After he wrote the article, Kurt said he never really expected the type of reaction he received. Many people wrote to him and related to him about overcoming fears.
Yesterday, I caught up with Kurt to ask him about his experience learning how to swim as an adult. I urge you to read his wonderful article, and then read through this follow-up interview. It will make you appreciate learning to swim the first time, and some of the difficulties adults face learning to swim.
Where did you grow up, and what was the swimming culture where you grew up?
I grew up in Seattle. Swimming culture, I wouldn’t know that much. I take that back, I wasn’t part of it. Now I live in a polar opposite world in Southern California where backyard pools are prevalent. In Seattle, no one has a backyard pool. Every pool is a community center or swim club or country club. It’s a lot less pervasive.
Were your friends swimmers growing up?
Most of the kids I knew could swim. It’s interesting, because I played tennis at a high level. I was captain at Berkeley. I was in an unusual position. Tennis and swimming are linked in some ways, the clubs you play at. So from that experience, most of the people at the clubs swam.
You wrote about a few negative experiences with the water, especially being pushed in by a babysitter. How did that affect your perspective on the water?
Well, it just hardened my fear. It magnified it. I think in that case the babysitter was picking up on that fear, and in his mind, gently teasing me. I don’t think he meant anything malicious. He was teasing, thinking I was OK. To me, it was a much, much bigger deal. He just fished me out. To him it wasn’t a big deal. To me, it stuck in my mind forever. That wasn’t the only time. There was an experience with a lake, a similar story where someone else threw me in. And just as in that case as I described in the newspaper, I can just absolutely clearly remember flying through the air and going into the water. And all that fear. That was when I was between 5 and 10 years old.
And you can vividly remember that experience?
Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
As years went by, what kept you away from the pool?
My own volition. Once you decide you won’t be a swimmer, that water isn’t a place that makes you feel comfortable. I didn’t do too much around the water. I was never one happy to be on a boat. If I did go on a boat, I needed my lifejacket. In Seattle, there were a lot of ferries. I always knew where the safety boats were. On a 40 minute ferry ride, I knew all the exits. The strange thing, I love water. I love looking at it. It’s fun to be on a ferry and looking out at the water. It’s not like I want to move to Arizona. I can’t imagine living far from water, from being able to see water.
Did you ever think, as you grew up, about taking swimming lessons?
There’s another thing I didn’t describe in the story. My mom, when I was 14, forced me to take these swimming lessons at the University of Washington. This was another thing I’ll never forget. I’m a big guy, 6’2”, and at 14, I was around 5’10”. She made me take swim lessons. We fought over it. I had to say yes. I ended up taking beginning swim classes, me at 6 feet tall with a bunch of 6 year olds. Imagine a high school freshman, it was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. I skipped class. I made excuses. I could never get the hang of treading water. I kind of could do doggy paddle. I was just doing it with my jaws clenched. At the end, in order to pass, you have to swim the width of the pool. Just because my mom was all over me to do it, I remember barely doggy padding, semi-crawling, I did make it somehow to the other side. I got out of the pool and never looked back. Maybe they weren’t 6, but they were no more than 9-years-old. It was the beginners’ youth class.
You wrote that you wanted to learn to swim so you could teach your son how to swim. Why was that so important to you?
You get to be 45, in your 40s, or late 30s, a little more wise and mature, and you realize, this is pretty ridiculous that you’ve neglected to learn this important skill because of fear. With the child for the first time, I just really strongly feel I don’t want to pass along my fears. I don’t want him to feel burdened by that. It’s symbolic. I don’t want him to have the same fears I have. Even relatively small ones. It is important. It’s an important skill, but it’s not the most important thing in the world. You can obviously design your life in a way where you’re pretty safe. I was choosing not to be around water much. I wanted him to be free of that. And we’ll see. Next year I’ve got to introduce him to the water.
You wrote so powerfully about being an adult learning how to swim. Can you describe what that was like?
I remember the first day of that class, and it was five days in a row. The first day, I knew I was going to write about that subject. But in the back of my mind, I was coming up with excuses. I was bargaining with myself, “Hmm, maybe I’m not feeling well.” During the day, my hands were sweating. I had this odd nervousness. I went along, it was such a nice environment to learn to swim. The teacher, as I described him, was very relaxed, it was a really supportive environment. The fact I was surrounded by other adults in the same boat, with this irrational fear of water, there was a community that formed quickly. That support helped me. It helped my comfort level. After the first day, I felt great. I was really excited the rest of the week. There were moments it was tough. It was just great to be around other people where we were all talking about it, this support system.
You were taught by someone you referred to as the “Swim Whisperer,” Conrad Cooper. What did he say to calm your fears? What made his instruction so helpful?
I think what’s helpful about him is his manner to begin with. Relaxing. The way he talked. There’s a smoothness about him, in a good way, that made you feel comfortable. He kept things so simple. He would push you along. It wasn’t breaking things down like, “You put your elbow here and turn your wrist that way as it falls into the water.” It was very like, “Kicking is like walking.” Pull your hands through the water, just scoop, using some imagery. Keeping things really simple. Even just his tone of voice. He has this music going on in the background. The pool is heated. It’s not huge, it’s large, but not immensely large. It’s not an Olympic sized swimming pool, where that would be mentally challenging. He wasn’t shouting instructions. He was in the water with you.
Was it easier than expected? Harder?
Every day got a little easier. The thing I was surprised at was how actually easy it was, I had built it up in my mind as hard. I was telling people by Wednesday, “You know what? It’s actually pretty simple.” Conrad [the teacher] doesn’t make a big deal about it. You have oxygen in your lungs, if you relax, and do simple techniques, you can do it. When I started to go from a crawl stroke from one side to another, it was amazing how much easier it was than what I had in my mind. I had this scenario of sinking to the bottom and clutching and gasping for breath. It was really all in my mind. Then I started to think about what other things I am fearful of in my life? Public speaking. Who knows? A lot of things we all have bugaboos about, I started to think, “Wow, how much am I just building in my head?” That was the coolest aspect the whole week.
Where are you at now with swimming?
The dirty little secret is I haven’t stepped in the pool since the last lesson. First, I’m still busy. I’ve got the child and he’s two and that’s taking so much of my time on weekends. It’s hard to justify telling my wife, “I’m going swimming on a Saturday morning rather than taking Ashe to the park.” I have to admit, there’s still part of me – I do plan on taking the next step. Maybe taking more lessons. But I think there’s still doubt in my mind. The fear is going to a community pool where I don’t have that support around. Everyone else will know how to do flip turns and backstroke, and I’ll be like, “What about me?” It’s a little embarrassing. I’ll be in the slow lane, grabbing the side every 30 feet.
And this is probably hard for you, since you are an athlete, and not used to being in the slow lane.
I was also a world ranked tennis player for four years in the late 80s, early 90s. So, yeah. I’m not “not physical.” I’m in the upper percentile of athletes.
Why do you think adults who don’t know how to swim stay away from taking lessons?
I think being presented with the opportunity to learn in a supportive environment – I don’t know where I’d want to go and take that next step. Like an intermediate level. The world of community pools is foreign to me. I don’t feel confident if I go to a community pool, I’ll feel all alone. Maybe I’m building that in my mind. It’s not access, it seems like there are pools. I don’t live in the inner city or anything. It seems to me there are a decent amount of community pools around.
What is your advice for any adult out there who may be fearful of getting into the water?
You just have to pull the trigger. You just have to go for it. You have to take the next step. I could have waited around, and waited around. I just decided, “Shoot, there may be nerves and embarrassment and moments where I’ll want to run away…” Just push yourself. Take that one push and if you can do it, it’s not that bad. It’s pretty fun. It was a lot of fun when I did get going. It was amazing.
That last scene in the story when I finally jumped into the deep end, came up, and I was treading water, and casually used my crawl stroke to get on the side, I wasn’t panicking. I felt good. I felt like I could just hang out there. There were moments when I was a child, I could see those pictures of falling into the water fearfully. Now, I have a picture of when I jumped into the pool with my goggles on, and I remember going to the bottom of the pool, and the pool was lit up, and I could see the bubbles coming up around me, and the rest of the pool, and it was like being in a dream. It was that one step. Literally, it was that one step that night into the deep end, and then the push to go ahead and sign up for the class. Now I have to take another step, and get to the intermediate level…
Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer with USASwimming.org and Splash Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MikeLGustafson.