Skip to main content
facts & arguments

"No, I'm not!" my 11-year-old son screams. "I'm not taking swimming lessons. I hate swimming lessons. And I'm not doing them!"

My son has spoken these same words over and over since he's been able to communicate. He's a good swimmer now, but he's never liked the lessons.

"It's not negotiable," I tell him. "It's like eating and breathing. You have to learn how to swim."

Easy for me to say. I am not a swimmer. At least not a confident one. My own aquatic rulebook states that if my feet can't firmly plant themselves on the bottom of a pool, lake or other body of water - tippytoes don't count - I must approach with caution, if at all.

It wasn't always like this. I remember the anxiety-free early days of earning my junior swimming badge. That bright orange stamp of approval meant I could throw myself into any watery expanse with confidence. After all, I was now an intermediate - the very word promised a decent level of know-how.

But words are useless when you're gasping for air.

This bit of wisdom came to me at the fragile age of 13. On a school outing one afternoon, I was treading water in the middle of a newly opened Olympic-sized pool. Several strokes from the side, I still remember feeling the satisfaction that comes with having mastered a skill. I trusted the water. I trusted myself. There was no reason not to.

But the reason came, in the form of a boy's arm grabbing hold of me and pulling me under. My friend held my legs down as I struggled under the water to free myself. After a few seconds that felt more like minutes, he let go and moved on to his next victim.

I resurfaced winded and panicked I wouldn't have the strength to make it back to safety, though not daring to draw attention to myself. At 13, it's preferable to die from drowning than die from embarrassment.

It sounds horrible, I know, but he was only fooling around - a teenaged boy's overzealous attempt at flirting. The effects, however, have been long-lasting. For most of my adult life, I've tried to rectify the damage those few moments have had on my psyche. And I'm still at it.

Every few years I sign up at the local neighbourhood pool for an adult swim class to work on my front crawl, back stroke and, most challenging, treading water in the deep end.

And, like my 11-year-old, I have to drag myself out to the pool on those Tuesday nights, complaining that the water is too cold, my body too tired and my confidence too shaky.

The class is an intermediate level, though the designation means little to me now. As I wade past the shallow-water marker, I can still work myself into a frenzy. I emerge breathing heavily, more from panic than from the work of keeping my body afloat.

Still, my technique gets better - to a point. I can't seem to cross over that invisible barrier that separates swimmer from non-swimmer, to move from fearing the water to trusting it again.

And that's why I enroll my four sons in lessons. I want them to have an ease in the water that I don't.

I grew up in Nova Scotia, never more than a few minutes away from salt water, and still spend much of my summers with family, beachside. But go in for a swim? Me? Not a chance.

Last summer, during an early-morning run on one of our favourite beaches, my husband and I stopped to take in the view. Within seconds, he was in the water.

"Do you want to keep running?" he asked, never considering I might want to join him. After 17 summers together, he knows better.

"I have to go in," he said, pulling his sweaty T-shirt over his head. "It'll just take a minute."

My husband has never met a body of water - natural or man-made - that he hasn't befriended.

"Careful, you're getting a little too close to the water," he'll joke. "You might actually get wet."

"It's not your ocean," I'll say, playing along.

It's a well-worn joke. I pretend to be crushed by his words. Maybe I am. How can I not love, embrace, the ocean like he does? After all, it's my birthplace. Part of me.

A few days before we left the coast, I watched my boys throwing themselves fearlessly into some raucous afternoon waves, a parting gift from hurricane Danielle.

As a huge one rolled in, someone yelled: "Big wave! Big wave!"

Lawn chairs abandoned, every member of my family sprinted the 20 metres to the ocean. There were screams of laughter. Then the crash of a gigantic breaker. Legs flying in the air. Vibrant colours from oversized board shorts bleeding through the blue-and-white surf. Everyone resurfaced, satisfied about riding the big one.

Something tugged at me. I should be in there.

One night over dinner back home in Toronto, swimming came up. "What exactly are you afraid of?" my 12-year-old, a strong swimmer, asked.

"Being in the middle of the deep end," I said. "I feel like I'm falling."

"So, let yourself go to the bottom," he said. "Make friends with being at the bottom. Once you know you can touch it and swim back up, what's there to be afraid of? It's like being afraid of the dark. You're all paranoid about something that's really not that bad."

He advised me to skip the group lessons and find a private instructor to tackle my demons once and for all.

I wondered how so much wisdom can come from someone so young. I also wondered why I've resigned myself to this fate.

And so back to swim lessons it is. For all of us.

Angela Yazbek lives in Toronto.