First Person Perfect: Adult Swim

Coach teaching adult how to swim.
Encouraged by JCC assistant aquatics director Sarah Grimm, Mia McPherson performs a freestyle stroke during a recent swimming lesson. Well into adulthood, Mia decided to challenge herself and learn to swim.

I’ve always felt a fear of water. When I was a young child, I took a swim class that was fun at first, but by the end of the session, all students were required to jump into the deep end of the pool. Regardless of coaxing from instructors and classmates and unhelpful attempts at motivation like, “Don’t be scared,” and “Just do it,” I wouldn’t do it and failed the class. Whether it really happened that way or if my memory has become distorted over time, I’m not sure. But the fact remained that I never wanted to do that again.

Around the time I turned 40, I became a parent, and decided that it was time to learn or improve certain life skills. Swimming was high on the priority list.

Although it felt like everyone but me knows how to swim, as it turns out, the inability to swim as an adult is quite common. A 2020 survey for the American Red Cross showed that while 84 percent of Americans said they could swim, only 56 percent of them could actually perform the five basic water competency skills which include:

1. Step or jump into the water over your head.

2. Return to the surface and float or tread water for one minute.

3. Turn around in a full circle and find an exit.

4. Swim 25 yards to the exit.

5. Exit from the water. If in a pool, be able to exit without using the ladder.

Though I finally had my personal motivation to learn to swim, the fear wasn’t easy to get over. “Swimming is a prevalent fear for a couple reasons—the main reason being that the ability to breathe is a basic biological function, and we want to protect that at all costs,” said psychologist Will Hasek.

What can we do about it? Hasek recommends gradual exposure, starting a little bit outside of your comfort zone, not with something that would flood you with fear. “A good swim instructor would know implicitly how to guide you.”

That’s exactly the job of Anna Rose Watterson, Aquatics Coordinator with the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, and my instructor in the JCC of South Hills’s Aquadults beginner class. Watterson began swimming competitively when she was 5 years old and has taught and coached children and adults from ages 6 months to 90+ years old.

“The hardest part about being an instructor is in the first lesson, being able to read the person,” she said.  “A child may be more likely to immediately trust me than an adult. Adults have so much life experience, I have to find a way to build trust quickly.”

And sure enough, on day one of our Aquadults beginner session, Watterson read the room and knew what we needed to hear. “Your fear is valid,” she told us, and went on to say that even competitive swimmers—and even she—can be scared at times. “Swimming is a mental game, even when you’re good at it. You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

I kept a journal during my first seven-week swimming session. Here are excerpts from it below, including my misconceptions, mistakes, unpreparedness but also enthusiasm, growth and progress.


Woman learning how to do the backstroke.
Mia McPherson is coached by Sarah Grimm, on the techniques of performing the back stroke.

Week 1 

It was an early Sunday morning. Rainy, gloomy, and gray. I had that first-day-of-school feeling. I was running late because I had been walking the neighbor’s dog. It was probably best that I didn’t have time to be nervous.

I was the last to arrive–there were four other people in the class ranging in age from teenage to about my age. Somehow, seeing my own fear reflected on four other faces made it seem a tiny bit less scary. The water was cold which made it easier to pretend that my shaking was due to chills and not nerves.

I thought Day 1 would be an easy day, but after quick introductions the instructor got us right into the experience starting with “bobs” under the water while blowing out of our noses, which was a new and confounding experience.

The second skill introduced was floating on our backs. I always thought this would be the hardest and scariest skill in swimming – how could it even be possible? – but I actually felt fairly successful in this on Day 1.

Building on that small feeling of triumph, the third skill was introduced – pushing off of the wall and gliding on our fronts, then attempting to roll onto our backs with eyes open and while exhaling out of our noses. At the same time. It was mentally and physically hard.

In between water up noses, arms flailing, grasping for the wall, nervous laughs, and desperate splashes, that crippling fear ebbed and flowed.

“Your fear is valid,” our instructor said, and offered reassurances that she, and the lifeguard staff, would watch out for us and keep us safe. She reminded us of the importance of water safety, and the goal – being able to get ourselves to safety while in the water.

I ended up being very unprepared for class. I brought too many bags of stuff but somehow didn’t use any of it. I wore tennis shoes and socks to the pool deck. I wore a regular 1-piece bathing suit, realizing only after studying others’ attire that there are other styles which are more suitable for swim lessons. I did research eyewear beforehand and purchased surprisingly affordable prescription goggles from the internet but forgot them in one of my bags and ended up wearing glasses in the pool (which didn’t work out). I wore a cloth headband (it got soaking wet) to try to keep my hair from getting messy (it was a disaster). In my haste to leave after class, I didn’t change out of my swimsuit and my car ended up smelling like wet dog.

But, I did it. It wasn’t as scary as I had built it up to be for more than three decades. I didn’t make a ton of progress, but I could see the potential. And, dare I say, it was a little bit fun.


Week 2

Last week I felt energized after class. This time, I feel so tired. Maybe from all of the kicking.

We practiced last week’s skills, and I got a ton of water up my nose again which was completely uncomfortable. I instantly felt like the water was eventually going to come back out in an unattractive way.

We also practiced kicking while holding onto a paddle board. I kicked my heart out but barely moved at all. No wonder people say swimming is good exercise. Life continues to show me that my impressions about how I think things are going to be can be totally wrong. I thought that back-floating would be the hardest and kicking using a paddle board would be easy.

I was right about the water in my nose coming out eventually: I puked in my car after class.


Week 3

I really didn’t want to go to swim class today. “Did anyone practice this week?” our instructor asked. Not me.

The first 10 minutes of class seem to last forever. I’m constantly looking over at the clock to see if it’s over yet. But after getting over the 10-minute mark, time starts to fly by.

A new skill—the freestyle stroke—was briefly introduced.


Week 4

This time, I did practice before class. On Saturday I went to a community pool with my mom. I found a small corner to practice, among kids throwing balls and babies splashing in their floaties.

I felt foolish and embarrassed, but I did it anyway, determined to figure out how to get less water up my nose and master flipping from front to back. I did eventually get the flipping skill. It didn’t feel graceful – I was flailing and really fighting for it—but after about an hour of practice (with breaks) I could do it consistently.

In class, the instructor asked, “Did anyone practice?” I did! We moved onto the backstroke. The instructor was optimistic that we could potentially go the length of the pool.

Then someone had to bring up the deep end (me). I questioned how deep it was down at the other end, and my old wariness, fear, and doubt crept back to the surface. After a lengthy reassurance by the instructor that it wasn’t too deep the other end of the pool, and she’d even carry the lifeguard rescue buoy to throw at us in case of emergency, and we could even scoot over closer toward the wall so we could grab on if we felt we needed it, logically it seemed doable—but the seeds of doubt had been planted.

I went first and barely got halfway to the deep end. Upon a powerful front glide off the wall, my bathing suit felt like it was falling down and while attempting to adjust it I forgot to breathe out of my nose on the flip and got water all up in it.

But there was palpable excitement at the prospect that we were even entertaining the idea of going the full length of the pool.

Now, while talking to people about my swimming journey, instead of saying, “I don’t know how to swim,” I’ve leveled that up to, “I’m learning how to swim.”

After class, I ordered a swim shirt.


Week 5

This week we practiced more flipping and freestyle. With only two classes left, there’s still optimism that with practice, we’ll be able to swim the length of the pool by the end of the session.


Week 6

I practiced again before class this week. I’m getting more comfortable in the water.

At this week’s lesson, the skill of breathing to the side while doing the freestyle stroke was introduced. Just when I stopped getting water up my nose doing the flipping skills, here’s a new skill that starts that process all over again. “You will get water in your mouth and nose,” the instructor noted. “It’s about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

I still only made it about half of the length of the pool.

Woman smiling at edge of pool.
Newly minted swimmer Mia McPherson shows you can always learn a new skill, even in adulthood.

Week 7

I wanted to be prepared for the last class of the session, so I practiced hard the day before. I did a lot of freestyle practice and also backstroke because as it turns out, I think that’s the easiest and most fun.

After a while, I decided to confront my fear of the deep end and made my way down there along the wall. I stopped at the deepest part of the pool and bobbed myself under to touch the bottom and feel how deep it really was. Even though it was intimidating, I kept in mind the instructor’s words and stayed calm, floated to the surface, and flipped to my back. Then I made my way to a more comfortable depth, and eventually the full way back to the other end of the pool doing a combination of skills learned. I did it!

During the final class, we went back to the basics: reviewing bobs and breathing out of our noses. While we didn’t strive for the other end of the pool this time, the instructor praised us for coming so far, reminded us to keep practicing, and encouraged us to sign up for the next session of classes.

I can now say that I enjoy swimming and look forward to the next time I can go.

Photography by John Schisler