Why Your Ass Should Really Know How to Swim

black woman at the pool

Clearing my throat as I get ready to dish out some tough love…

Sisters: I’m sick of the lame-assed excuses for NOT learning how to swim.

First, your hair can and will survive. Secondly, you might find yourself in a situation surrounded by water where you can’t and won’t. There, I said it. Who do I think I am, right? I am YOU.

I signed up for my first swim lessons at age 36. Sure, my sweet Granny still has my “Tadpole” license that I earned from our hometown YMCA when I was about 4 years old. But after a 30-something year hiatus from swimming pools, that didn’t help me at all. And just like then, if I couldn’t touch the bottom of the pool, you might as well cancel Christmas because I ain’t going in that water. Uh-un, no way.

The stark reality is, my scaredypants-ness (and your’s) runs deep. Historically, Black people have been separated from pools and safe swimming locations, since Jim Crow. Municipalities often favored building cheaper splash parks rather than actual pools, so children and adults never learned how to avoid drowning. Even in 2018, out of 107 historically Black colleges and Universities, not one has a functioning 50-meter pool and only Howard University in Washington, D.C. has a competitive swimming and diving team. The American Red Cross reports that 70 percent of African Americans still lack basic swimming skills. This means that the majority of us could not tread water awaiting rescue or swim 25-50 meters to get themselves out of a body of water.

But I wanted to learn. So, at the risk of being the only adult clinging to a noodle, I signed up for a swimming class while 5 months pregnant with my youngest son. Ya know what? One stroke at a time, 4 years later, I’d moved from a “four strokes and stand up” pattern in shallow water to an Ironman 70.3 finisher, U.S. Masters Swim Coach, and a Certified Adult-Learn-to-Swim Instructor. I’ve swam in everything from lakes to rivers, from the Chesapeake Bay to the Back Bays of Atlantic City. All this to say, it can be done – even for someone who’s as scared as I was. Here’s how you can do it, too:

Get past the hair issue, ladies.

Dr. Shaunna Gold
Dr. Shaunna Payne Gold

Look, when I knew that my goal was to become a triathlete — which required a lot of time in the water — I chose a hairstyle to support my lifestyle. I never want my hair to get in the way of my workouts or training. Now I ain’t saying to go do the Big Chop, but consider hairstyles that work on days you swim. Take your chances with a swimming cap, though most will only keep your hair “somewhat” dry. Definitely learn how to nurture your hair with conditioners and oils that will protect your tresses from the harsh chemicals in pool water. And if your stylist doesn’t support your athletic life with protective styles, find a new stylist who has the skill sets you need.

Stop stalling and get started.

It took me three weeks to get used to putting my face in the water and trying not to completely freak out in waist-deep water. The more I simply moved around in the water, the better I began to feel about the prospect of becoming a swimmer. Yes, I looked ridiculous and made daily mistakes, but everyone has to start somewhere. Get started even in the messiness, or you’ll regret that you waited. There is no one stopping you, but you.

Participate in your own rescue.

That’s what this is ultimately about: Being able to save yourself! I spent two months taking four strokes, then standing up. Baby steps here…or even better, baby strokes. At times I lost count, swallowed water, and forgot to stand up. While all of this struggling was going on, I’d forget that I am 5’5″ tall swimming in less than 4 feet of water. When I felt like I was drowning, all I had to do was stand up and save myself. It was time for me to participate in my own rescue.

All you need is a visual.

At our pool, each lane has its own depth. For example, the 7-foot lane is entirely 7 feet from end to end. Enter my “visual” Olivia, a red-headed lifeguard at our local gym and a competitive swimmer, who was training for an open water swim when I first met her. Tall, lanky, and streamlined, she swam better than a fish. I used to just stop and watch her effortless swim, put my “hater” face on, and wish I could get to that point.

Well, it took 4 months for me to finally get in the 7-foot lanes without freaking out. In fact, Olivia was there on that day when I clung to the pool wall, cussed out my training patna as she was trying to calm me down, and claimed I was getting out and never coming back. When I made it down 25 yards from wall-to-wall for the first time, Olivia congratulated me mid-stroke and never missed a beat. The same swimmer who I aspired to be, the same lane that I wanted to conquer, and the same goal I saw in Olivia, I wanted. Now, I march directly over to 7 feet without fear. All I needed was a visual to make it happen for myself. Once you meet a goal, you never know — you might just be the “visual” for others.

Manage your fear.

After giving birth, my doctor allowed me to swim before she would clear me for any other physical activities. The mechanics came back to me quickly, but the fear  I thought I’d conquered followed me around like Debo in the movie Friday rolling up on his kiddie bike from behind. If you have a deep-seated anxiety about something, never let anyone else tell you to “get over it” or try to convince you that your fear is not real. It IS real to you and that’s all that matters. Find your strategies for managing your fear. Even to this day, it is not natural for me to just casually jump into deep, unknown waters. However, I manage my fear by using lots of psychological strategies that I’ve developed over the years. (I teach those very same strategies during private lessons in my SHEro Swim School – shameless plug).

Go for progress, not perfection.

Eight months after starting to swim, I completed my first sprint triathlon, the Druid Hill Sprint Triathlon in Baltimore — a pool swim with a hilly bike trail and a flat run.  The very next month, I swam at Eppley Recreational Center at the University of Maryland’s competition pool. The shallow end is 8- to 14-foot deep, 50 meters long.  A month later, I did it again, and completed my second triathlon. Neither my form nor my times were impressive, and I thought about giving up on several occasions. All of this to say, many times we hold ourselves back from doing things because we think it has to be perfect. Nope. Giving something your all even if it’s not perfect gives you a starting point, a measurement for future progress, and the momentum for the next thing.

Always ask the question, “What’s next?”

If you learn to love the basics of swimming, it’s possible you’ll want to learn how to dive or learn a new stroke next. Almost 18 months after my first lesson, my training patna and I plunged into our first open water swim in the Chesapeake Bay with an epic swim coach from Crossing Currents Aquatics. (Coach Traci swam the English Channel in 1997 and immediately prior to our first lesson together, she had just won a 7-Mile swim. Gangsta.) Our lessons were right on time before we headed out to St. Maarten for 7 days of swimming in the clear open water of the Simpson Bay. After St. Maarten, we prepped for The Nation’s Triathlon, our first Olympic distance.  After each goal, we always walked away thinking about what techniques, what pool, what water conditions and what distance we should master next. Don’t stop trying to get better.

Never, ever punk yourself.

I remember most vividly, that Chesapeake Bay swim. Just looking at the water made me want to run in the opposite direction. At this point I had been swimming continuous laps in pools of all depths for MONTHS, but this wasn’t quite the same experience. After slowly creeping into the water that afternoon, getting a feel for the water, and listening to instruction, we swam a full mile! You see, we “punk” ourselves sometimes. Even without the discouragement of others, we convince ourselves that we can’t do something before we even try. As I tell my oldest son Trai when he’s struggling to tie his shoes — “TRY it first, then ask for help. But never start with “I can’t” or “I don’t”.

Now, don’t get it twisted. I understand that there are some longstanding psychological, social, political, racial, and financial issues why women of color have not prioritized learning how to swim. Understand that before colonization, those from the African Diaspora were expert swimmers and divers. So let’s get rid of excuses like…

When I was a kid, we didn’t have much access to pools or open water.

I had a bad experience with water when I was a kid.

My kids know how to swim, so I don’t need to learn.

Ain’t nobody getting into that nasty water.

I don’t wanna be a triathlete, anyway, so…

I don’t wanna deal with my hair.

I’ve been there, done that – and these are all excuses that I used for years.

Let’s put a stop to the heart-wrenching drowning stories that we read in the media every summer. You don’t have to be a competitive swimmer. But do this: Stop what you’re doing right now, sign yourself up for those lessons, and splash. Your life and your peace of mind are worth the effort.

Dr. Shaunna Payne Gold writes monthly for Crush magazine AND…she’s a U.S. Masters Swimming Certified Coach, Triathlete, Marathoner, Author, Blogger, Educator, & BoyMom, Owner & Founder of SHEro Athletics, LLC. Follow her on Instagram @sheroathletics.



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