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How I Finally Decided to Overcome My Fear of Swimming

I re-learned how to swim as an adult and it changed my life.


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Kenny C

3 years ago | 7 min read

It’s been a couple of weeks since I swam nearly a kilometer, feeling more confident and euphoric than I have ever been in the water. It was an incredible feat for me because, for years, swimming was one of those things where I thought: “I’m not good at it, and I never will be.” That thought lingered there most of my childhood — dwelling in the darkest corners of my consciousness. The truth was; that I was scared to confront this weakness of mine.

This all changed last year when a series of unexpected circumstances brought me to face one of my biggest insecurities and overcome it. I have written this piece for people like me that, for whatever reason, have hidden away their insecurities but think that it is time to confront them. If that is you, maybe you will find one or two things to ponder after this article.

My first memory of being in the water is from my early childhood. I was at the public bathhouse sitting on the shoulders of someone standing in the deep end of the swimming pool.

Suddenly, the person decided to play a prank on me by throwing me over his shoulders. I landed face down into the water and started to sink. I remember seeing the sunlight dancing all around me and silhouettes of other people above me as I thought I was going to die.

Eventually, the person picked me up. But not before I had already involuntarily gulped my fair share of water and panic had taken ahold of me.

After that incident, every mention of swimming always made me feel nervous. Even though I eventually learned how to swim breaststroke, I only saw it as a necessary skillset rather than fun. It was undoubtedly never fun.

When my friends proposed that we go to a lake or the public bathhouse to escape the summer heat, I always hesitated to follow. I couldn’t help it; just thinking about swimming made me anxious.

Nonetheless, this was all fine. Swimming was not for me, and I decided that this was just how it was. Why would I ever need to change that?

The Turning Point

Last year, the company I worked for announced that they were going to arrange a swimrun. For those who are not familiar: swimrun is a race where you partially swim and partially run to finish the race.

Of course, it was a voluntary activity, and thus my decision-making process was easy. I was not going to participate.

However, as the weeks progressed, I started playing with the thought of actually participating. “What would it feel like to break through my comfort zone and finally face my insecurity?” I started thinking to myself.

To help the swimrun participants prepare for the race, the company arranged an opportunity to learn how to swim freestyle with a swim instructor. If I were ever going to get better at swimming, getting help from real pros was as good as it could get.

After relaying my thoughts to one of my closest friends and some convincing from his part, I ultimately decided to at least participate in the first swimming lesson.

I was mentally prepared to be the worst student during the lesson and had come to terms with that fact. However, as it turned out, I had plenty of co-workers that were equally bad, if not worse, at swimming.

The harsh lens that I had judged myself through was just that: an imaginary belief that I was just so much worse than everyone else. After a few swimming lessons, I even got compliments for how quickly I managed to improve. I was taken aback.

I came back from the swimming lessons, feeling more empowered and confident than I had ever been towards swimming. Not only had I shattered my old belief about my disability in water, but something else had started to stir. I had gotten a taste for swimming and was curious to see where it could lead me.

“How would it feel like to be completely comfortable in the water?” I started to wonder. I had seen other swimmers glide through the water completely weightless. So I made that my next goal.

That summer, I started going to the public bathhouse to practice the few tips I had gotten from the swimming instructors. I’d watch YouTube videos and try and mimic the movements by myself in the water to the best of my abilities.

Without a doubt — in the beginning, I looked like a drowning monkey. I would swim; I would sink, coughing up water, and repeat it all over again. I felt like a complete beginner, learning how to swim for the first time.

I’d get yelled at for swimming too slow at the freestyle range, and I’d get yelled at for swimming freestyle in the swimming exercise range. There was simply no room for beginners that just wanted to practice their crawling strokes. The social stigma of learning how to swim as an adult was almost as jarring as the actual task.

However, I focused on the process and the soon-to-be new skillset that I did not get discouraged by the slow progress nor the occasional scolding. The thoughts of gliding through water effortlessly was what kept me going.

At a certain point, I hit a plateau. I seemed to be doing something wrong, and as much as I struggled, the vision of gliding through water seemed to be miles away. It did not feel as effortless as I imagined it would be, and I would feel exhausted after swimming just one or two laps. I was doing something wrong, and I could not figure out what.

So I decided to contact my best friend’s younger brother, a swimming instructor, for swimming lessons.

And boy, am I glad I did. It turns out that I was not doing something wrong. I was doing almost every movement wrong.

My knees were bent when I was kicking. I tilted my head downwards too much. My back was arched so that my stomach was dragging me down. When I turned my head to catch air, I made an over-rotation, which made me sink, and the list goes on.

At first, it felt frustrating to get all these faults pointed out to you. However, slowly while mending these movements, I started to feel lighter and more streamlined in the water. It didn’t feel exhausting to swim one or two laps anymore, and I was getting a feel for moving through the water correctly.

Between the sessions with my instructor, I started to go and practice more by myself voluntarily. Some days I would come back and seriously wonder if my body constitution was meant for swimming at all. Some days I would feel fantastic while completing my laps.

Still, there was one single thing that stood out during my practice sessions. While repeating the thousands and yet again thousands of crawling strokes, I slowly but surely started to enjoy the process of swimming thoroughly.

Regarding the swimrun, I eventually decided to participate. By this time, I was not comfortable enough to swim the distance using freestyle, but I still had enough practice to finish the race. Swimrun had been my end goal, but I already knew by then that I was going to continue swimming.

My first real accomplishment, though, came almost a year later. A couple of months ago, to be precise.

At the end of this summer, my swimming instructor challenged me to do several laps nonstops in a 50-meter swimming lane. For me, this challenge was putting me to my limits as I had utterly failed at swimming nonstop before. Just one or two laps had made me gasp for air and feel completely exhausted.

I took on the challenge knowing that it would be the most laps that I’d have ever swum. I solely focused on all the movements I had been practicing repetitiously throughout the year. Before I knew it — I had finished the laps.

Me — someone who, at one point in my life, had decided that swimming was not for me had finished the challenge using freestyle. Furthermore, I found that I had started to enjoy it immensely. The experience opened my eyes to confronting my swimming prowess for what it was. I was not naturally bad at it; I had just never properly begun the journey.

At that moment, I wished my childhood self could meet my present-day self to see that it was possible to change yourself and surpass the boundaries of your comfort zone.

I understand that swimming has never been a problem for many people or any insecurity of theirs whatsoever. That is fine. We all have our obstacles and struggles. What remains the same is that striving to become a better version of yourself regardless of the challenges you face, brings real growth and life fulfillment.

There’s a certain humbling feeling of repeating something you suck at. For me, I had to face my true self as I struggled to learn to swim freestyle. To involuntarily cough up water or look like you’re having a hard time in the water is far from graceful.

However, the thought that I am no longer the same child that hated to be around water made it all worth it in the end. It opened my mind to face other shortcomings in my life.

Nowadays, I go to the public bathhouse a couple of times a week to exercise and continue practicing my freestyle. I am nowhere near done with perfecting the vision I had for myself. But I am closer with every crawling stroke. And most importantly, I am at total ease while swimming, and I am having so much fun while doing so.

That is all that matters in the end.

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