Weekend Column: Fighting Fear and Finding Joy in a Local Pool

Photograph by Affebook.

By Barbara Bonn

“Any plans for today?” a friend texted me one recent morning.

“Swimming!!!” I texted back, adding an emoji of a guy doing freestyle. In that moment I felt a familiar rush: excitement mixed with pride mixed with fear.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” He was wrong. From my unheroic viewpoint, there is plenty to fear. War, unemployment, clowns, public speaking, the three-week cold with the unremitting cough that everyone seems to be catching. And water.

I speak of pools, lakes, the ocean. The stuff most people learn to swim in when they’re children. Most people, except those unfortunates who are scared silly of it. People like me whose first swimming lesson involved being thrown into the waves of the Atlantic to sink or swim. And sank.

The thrower in my case was my much-loved grandfather. Grampa Joe swam like a fish and saw no reason why I shouldn’t as well. Into the breakers he carried me, a chubby three-year-old without a clue. I flailed, I screamed, I swallowed a gallon of salty green ocean and down I went, under the foaming curl of the mother of all waves. Grampa scooped me out and waded back to the beach, where I was laid face down on a sandy towel and had my back pounded until I coughed up the last salty drop and half a lung. So much for swimming; after that, I refused to go near any body of water larger than a bathtub.

So it went until a Big Birthday two years ago. Which birthday is not important, except that it was big enough to impress me with the fact that I had moved to the other side of the great divide between cradle and grave. I wanted to learn how to swim. If not now, when?

So my birthday present to myself was a membership to the JCC on 76th Street and Amsterdam. I signed up for beginner swim classes and, holding onto the edge, managed to get my new bathing suit wet. I looked down through the clear water and could see my feet planted firmly on the tile bottom. They seemed a mile away. At the instructor’s order, I pulled on my goggles and dipped my face an inch into the water. And that was it. With my three-year-old self whispering “Don’t trust it; you’re a sinker” I could not follow the instructions to lift my feet off the bottom. I slunk back to the locker room, an abject failure.

Here’s the thing about fear. Well, maybe not THE thing, but a thing. Sometimes it’s a useful mechanism for survival – the instinct that keeps us off deserted streets at 3 a.m. and stops us from crossing Amsterdam Avenue against the light. In which case it’s prudent. It makes sense. But when fear is irrational, when it’s a remnant of the primitive lizard brain that gets in the way of our good sense, fear weighs us down. It sinks us.

I went back to the JCC and signed on for ten private lessons. By sheer luck, I was assigned to an instructor whom I shall identify here only as the Cool Coach. Also, the Compassionate Coach. He got what I was feeling when I let the water close over my head the first time. (Fear, pride, joy). It took many more than those first ten lessons for him to make me believe that if I lay back in the water and relaxed, if I trusted the transparent, un-solid stuff, I would float. My job was to confront the anxiety that had become a toxic habit, to tell myself, when I felt out of control, “I can bear this for another five seconds.” To keep going. Coach and the milestones we reached have kept me going. Oh, the exuberance, the high fives when I did my first full lap of the 45-meter pool without needing to stand and touch bottom. And oh, the pride when the lifeguard said “You’re doing an amazing job.”  (She hasn’t needed to come in and rescue me yet.)

I’ve come to enjoy the challenge of refining my technique, one little thing at a time. Hmm, the fingers should stay together when they slice through the water? They should scoop, not slap? How interesting! Every tiny improvement translates into a reward: an immediate increase in efficiency plus longer-term gains in strength and stamina.

I’m at the JCC pool now twice a week, once for a lesson, once for practice. Swimming is a solitary activity, which suits me. But there is a sense of connection with the other swimmers, especially the older, slower ones, the ones who swim through pain and disability. I envy the little kids who are learning the joy and discipline of swimming at a tender age: it’s something they will have forever. (There’s a sweet quote from the Talmud on one wall of the pool deck that instructs parents to “Teach your children to study, to find love, to learn a trade; and teach them to swim.” The old Talmudists knew their stuff.)

Okay, look: I’ll never be the swimmer I might have been if I had started as they have, early and unafraid. The JCC pool is a kindly environment: it slopes gently from 4 feet to 4.5 feet deep. I’m 5’4”. I know that I can always stand up and gulp air if I need to. I don’t know yet how I’d manage in deeper water, whether the old fear would come barreling back or whether the new confidence would overcome it.

Either way, I’m going swimming this morning. If you and I happen to be in the pool at the same time, I’m the one with the yellow snorkel and the purple swim cap, doing freestyle laps, twenty per session, in the slow lane. Say hello and feel free to move ahead of me. I’m doing this at my own pace, but I’m doing it.

This is Barbara Bonn’s second column for WSR. “I have lived and worked on the Upper West Side for so long that I consider myself an old-timer, with everything that the term implies,” she says. You can read her first column about  a “lucky” terrace here.

COLUMNS | 3 comments | permalink
    1. OJ says:

      You go, girl! Thanks for sharing your story so beautifully.

    2. Ms. T says:

      A wonderful fish tale! I grew up swimming and now, when life has sent obstacles my way and I have to undergo frequent medical scans, I close my eyes and pass the time imagining swimming in my favorite bodies of water—the Pacific, the Aegean, and the Mediterranean, as well as the pool at the JCC.

    3. Deb says:

      Is this picture the 2020 version of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album cover?