How I Learned to Swim (and didn’t drown)

I’ve had several discussions lately with people who are beginning the fun journey of learning to swim as adults. If you are one of them, let me tell you right now that I know exactly what you’re going through. Four years ago, I was you (sort of..well, you know what I mean…)

I hate not being able to do something. Of course, there are lots of things I won’t be able to do no matter how much I try, such as reach the top shelf at the grocery store without climbing on the bottom shelf, become President (I’m London born and proud of it) or pee like a guy, but when I know I CAN do something about it, that pisses me off.

Plus, I really wanted to do a triathlon but not being able to swim was a bit of a sticking point. So I decided I would learn. Here’s my no holds barred account of how I did just that.

Four years ago my two boys were 4 and 6 and were both on the Mini Ray swim team. In other words, they could swim better than I could. So I made sure to sit really close to their coach during practice, so I could hear what she was telling them. Then, when it got dark (not kidding) I went to the pool and tried to swim. I was terrified the lifeguard would dive in and try to rescue me during my pathetic attempts to get across the pool, but thankfully our lifeguards don’t really like getting out of their chairs so I was left alone to flounder in the deep end.

At 8 he could swim better than me...

When summer came to an end, I moved to the indoor pool near my youngest son’s preschool. I’d drop him at school and, before I could change my mind, I’d drive over to the Freedom Center pool and get in the lane next to the wall (for safety). At that time in the morning it was just me and the water aerobics class, so I got to swim along to some great tunes. At this point I could make it one length without stopping, but I had to rest at the wall each time. I couldn’t believe how out of breath I was. Here I was, a marathon runner, and I couldn’t swim 25 yards without hyperventilating. I learned that part of this was my poor breathing technique, but most of it was my discomfort in the water. I was terrified I might drown. Seriously. I had visions of slipping under the water and no-one noticing.  I eventually overcame this fear simply by swimming more, and found I could do 2 then 3 and more lengths without stopping.

That's what I said...

In the Spring, I signed up for South Riding Triathlon, which would be held in September. I attended a tri clinic at the beginning of the summer and was horrified that we had to swim the entire 400m race distance. I managed it with some stopping and about 100m of breaststroke. After some biking and running, which I did with no problems, the race director, Brian Crow, told us to do the swim again. Then he looked at me and said, “freestyle the whole way.” Who was this guy kidding? There was NO WAY I could swim 400m freestyle! Nevertheless, I got in the pool and I tried it. I had to stop a couple of times but I made it the whole way swimming freestyle. I was psyched.

I had signed up to swim twice a week with the master’s swim program over the summer. I got through the workouts and improved my stamina while lowering the time I spent hanging on the wall, but my technique was awful. Master’s swim really doesn’t focus on technique, since it’s assumed you already know how to swim (most of my poolmates swam in high school while I played field hockey and ran cross-country and kept away from bodies of water) and just want to get in a workout.

In the Fall I signed up to swim with Brian Crow from Team TPR. I knew I wasn’t a good swimmer, but I didn’t realize how bad I was until one day when I accidentally found myself in a lane with two of the faster ladies in our Wednesday morning swim group. I seriously thought they were going to drown me as they kept passing me, doing flip turns, and other scary stuff. To make matters worse, Coach Crow was videotaping us so I got to relive the horror of my underwater slaughter as well as observe my horrific technique over and over again.

But, as the months passed and Coach Crow picked apart my stroke week after week, having me do all these totally weird drills that made me feel like a complete idiot, I saw some improvement. There were moments, such as when he had me swim catchup with a pull bouy, and I couldn’t stop myself from logrolling, when I thought I would never get this. There were even a couple of primadonna scenes where I got out of the pool and stomped off, but things eventually got better.

Last summer my then 9 year old taught me how to do a flip turn. If you think learning to swim is embarrassing, try learning to flip with your 9 year old saying, “OMG Mom, it’s soooo easy!!!”

I made it!

Last year I completed my first Half Ironman, which involves 1.2 miles of swimming. In open water. To make matters worse, I positioned myself front and center at the start and got pummeled for the first few minutes. I focused on not panicking, reminding myself that I was NOT going to drown, and just kept swimming…

So when people who are at the beginning of their swim journey tell me that they don’t think they’ll ever be able to swim 400m without stopping, that they’ll never feel completely comfortable swimming, that they will NEVER swim in open water, I explain where I started, and how far I’ve come, and tell them YES, you will.




  1. Your story gives me hope! I need to learn how to really swim. After doing my first Duathlon a few weeks ago it occurred to me that if I wanted to do a tri, I need swim lessons! Thanks for sharing!!
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  2. for the first time in many years I am considering swimming. This does not mean I am entering into a tri, but rather means I am toying with the idea that I might be able to do a tri sometime in my very distant future. What I have noticed around here is a tremendous amount of adult swim classes, so I think your post is encouraging to those of us terrified of the pool. xo
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  3. Great story! I’m lucky to have learned to swim in open water since I was very young, so the struggles people have with swimming frankly puzzle me. If you’re fit and get out of breath swimming short distances, is it really just a matter of getting the breathing rhythm/technique down properly?
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    • Racingtales says:

      Thanks, Axel. I think most of it came from being nervous and uncomfortable. Once I got more confident in the water, I was no longer so out of breath.

  4. Wow your post speaks to me. I am in the same position as you were…I am new to swimming as an adult and started my swimming career the exact same as you! I haven’t joined anything formal yet but I am starting to think that should be my next step. I hope to read some follow up posts to see how your running career progresses!

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