Giving it a SWIM

Sunday, August 24, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:33 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The pool room is steamy and the water is 80 degrees, but warm water isn’t much of a comfort to Jerry Miller. At age 50 he has summoned up the courage and perseverance to learn to swim.

  “I was afraid of the water and still am a little,” Miller says. “Right now I’m trying to learn to breathe with my face in the water because it’s not a natural act. I may not be able to learn to swim, but I’m going to give it a shot.”

  It’s Miller’s second day of master’s swimming and to get used to being in the water he practices bobbing his head under the water and walking laps. Jerry is a participant in the master’s swim class at Wilson’s Fitness taught by Molly Vetter and Steve Taylor, both triathletes. 

  “We have every level from advance triathletes to beginners,” Taylor says.

  Master’s swimming meets four mornings a week at 6 and two evenings a week at 7. Swimmers are divided by ability and given exercises for their level.

  “OK, good, Jerry. Do four laps of water running and do 10 bobs every time you reach this end,” Steve says. “Practice using your arms to help pull you through the water.”

  “I just wanted the challenge and wanted to be able to say I tried,” Jerry says. “One of the reasons I decided to learn to swim is because it’s good exercise and easier on the joints. I work out every day, but it would be nice to swim for exercise. And water-skiing always looked like a lot of fun but I couldn’t do it because I couldn’t swim and was afraid of the water.”

  Miller says he never had the opportunity to learn to swim during childhood, so he’s trying now. He says the hardest part was getting up the nerve to try it.

  Taylor demonstrates arm movements for Miller, both in and out of the water.

  “He makes it look so easy,” Miller says. “That’s not even fair.”

  At the end of the hour Miller pulls himself out of the water and rests on the pool ledge.

  “Whew, that’s a good workout,” Miller says. “I feel like I got a little better toward the end. I’m a little more comfortable in the water, but it still feels awkward.”

  “So, how are you guys doing?” Taylor asks Miller and another beginning swimmer. “Are you guys getting enough tips and feedback?”

  Miller nods a yes and asks a question about breathing.

  “You’ve made some progress,” Taylor says. “But it seems to me you’re still a little anxious and tense in the water. It will be easier once you relax; you just need to be in the water a lot. Practice in between the two times a week we meet. It doesn’t have to be for an hour, just 15 minutes at a time. Then each time you’ll feel more comfortable. Next year you’ll be ready for a triathlon!”

  Taylor really enjoys swimming and coaching swimming. He teaches beginners using successive approximation and gives students one or two techniques to learn at a time until the movements are second nature. Having coached for a while, Taylor has a good sense for how quickly to push each person along.

  “I started this program because I am always looking for ways to get more people involved in sports. This is an economical way for people to get swim coaching and it’s more fun to have people to compete with and challenge you. It’s such a good form of exercise and there’s a real joy when someone who is not a good swimmer has an ‘aha’ moment. This is tremendously rewarding for me. I know that it’s really hard for non-swimmers to learn to swim. They take a big risk and really challenge themselves. Just sticking with it is the crucial piece.”

  By the end of the month, Miller looks comfortable in the water and is practicing kicking and arm movements.

  “I thought I should be able to swim for the next 50 years since I didn’t swim for the first 50,” Miller says with a laugh.

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