There are some seemingly basic skills that we, as a society,  believe most adults  have mastered: tying shoelaces, driving a car, riding a bike – and swimming. But can most adults swim? Those of us who can, probably assume that our peers can, too. However, there are adults who have never learned this essential skill. If you are one, you are not alone.

Unfortunately, not knowing how to swim can have dire consequences. According to The Centers for Disease Control, about one in five people who die from drowning are children 14 or younger. That means that the other four drowning victims are adults or older teens. Moreover, there is a disparity in swimming skills between certain population groups. According to the national organization USA Swimming, 70 percent of African-Americans and 60 percent of the Latino  population cannot swim.  

The good news is that it’s never too late to learn. Sixty-five-year-old Kay West is proof of that. West began taking swim lessons at the Walla Walla YMCA pool this past summer so that she could swim in Arizona with her grandchildren. “I have two little grandsons … and they have a big pool, and I go down to watch them,” West explains. She was always quite nervous when the boys got into the pool: If they were to get into  trouble, she didn’t know whether she could help.

Before she had to watch her grandsons, West had a reason at the ready for why she couldn’t learn to swim: She was too busy. “I always worked full time, and that was my excuse. Now, I’m working part time. I got so tired of being so frightened around the water, I decided — I can do this!”

With her newfound courage, West enrolled in private swim lessons. She was so scared of the water, her instructors had to really talk to her to get her in the pool to her waist.  She took lessons twice a week for five weeks. “Laura and Jon [her instructors] were so sweet. They were respectful, encouraging and positive.”  

By the time West finished her lessons, she was off to Arizona to babysit her grandsons for a week. “Both of my grandsons swim like fish — I was in the water with them! I was so much more comfortable. I was so relaxed. I was in the water and not sitting on the sidelines!”  

Another woman tired of sitting on the sidelines was working mom  Lijuana Freeman. Unlike West, Freeman did have some water experience. “I could dog paddle and tread water a little bit,” she says. But she never felt like she was a strong enough swimmer to really participate in water activities like floating down a river. “I want to be able to hang out in the pool with my son, instead of lying that I don’t like cold water,” she laughs. “I would like to participate in the Northwest lifestyle and have fun.”

Freeman is ready to jump right in and begin her private lessons. “I’m starting to work on my bucket list. It’s now or never. I don’t want to wait until the end to do these things. I’m doing them now!” she says.  Once Freeman becomes a stronger swimmer, she has another goal: “I want to use swimming as exercise. I want to glide through the water and get a swimmer’s body.”

Bruce and Theresa Rencken were already using swimming as a form of exercise when they contacted the YMCA for private swimming lessons. They had another goal: to compete in triathlons. “One day Theresa said, ‘Hey, we should do this’ [compete in triathlons]. And I said, ‘Yeah, that sounds great,’” Bruce says. “It was a fun thing for us to do together as a couple.”

Both Theresa and Bruce are competent runners and cyclists. They were just looking to maximize their efforts in the water to make it efficiently through the first leg of the triathlon race. “I wanted to swim better and increase my swimming distance,” smiles Bruce.  

Typically, most triathletes struggle with the swimming portion the most. It’s not unusual to see a high-performing athlete thrash about once they hit the water. Primarily, it is because running and cycling require consistent exertion, while swimming requires some relaxation for it to work. You can’t muscle your way through water; you have to learn how to feel your way through it. It’s more like dancing. You have to remain loose and learn to give and take from the water.

The Renckens were up for the challenge. “We wanted a new focus for our fitness. We wanted to challenge ourselves to do something strenuous. Our goal was to finish,”  Bruce says. 

They did finish. The Renckens both competed in the Whitman College spring triathlon and went on to finish the Onion Man in Walla Walla this past May. “Get out and try it,” says Bruce. “If you work at it and train, you can do it!”

No matter whether you are a beginner like West, an intermediate swimmer like Freeman, or a triathlete like Theresa or Bruce Renken, there is always a place for you in the pool. Anyone can gain aquatic confidence, use swimming as exercise or meet a new fitness goal.  

For true beginners, it is best to start out with private lessons to become familiar with, and comfortable in, the water. Once the front paddle or freestyle is mastered, a swimmer can move on to lap swimming or join an adult swimming group. This fall, the YMCA will be offering “Transformational Trainings,” evening sessions which will be focused on adult swimmers. In the mornings, there is  Masters Swimming, where you can join in a challenging workout with other advanced swimmers. Whatever your level, it’s never too late in life to swim.

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