30 years of swim lessons

We all have this one thing in life we desperately would like to master. I have a fairly long list – skiing, cooking, rising early in the morning with ease – the list goes on. Swimming was on top of my list.  

It was not for lack of trying. I had given up on swimming as a sport I would never learn. My first attempt at the Mount Road YMCA in Chennai after high school convinced me that I would never enter a pool without a coach in the water begging me to come in.

Fast forward many years. I took swim lessons in graduate school, multiple sessions in city pools, and expensive private lessons in Woodside. Thirty years later I still couldn’t swim. I had attended so many lessons that I could probably teach swimming myself – I knew all the instructions –   “blow bubbles”, “kick with your hip, not your knees”, “don’t panic.”

The only time I moved in the water was on a boat. 

Giving up on swimming

I sent my kids to swimming lessons – they could save me if I got into trouble in the water. They enjoyed trying to teach me to tread water – this was their chance to teach their Amma something. 

In the summer of 2019, on a visit to India, a paternal cousin told me he was a swim coach. His two sons were swim champions in Pune, India. I confessed that I had given up on swimming. Though I was close to retirement and in decent shape, I would not attempt swim lessons again.

My cousin was amused. He invited me to Pune, “I can teach you in no time.” Maybe he was just being kind and generous, but then, the swimming bug got in my system again. I decided to take him up on his offer – long distance.

5 feet tall. 5 feet deep

On my return to Sunnyvale, I went to the pool at my gym. It’s only 4 to 5 feet deep the entire distance; this was important as I am only five feet tall on a good day. I felt safe. If I stayed vigilant I would not drown here.

My coach began with simple activities to start – the aim was to get comfortable in the water. He got me to buy a board and fins which are essential for swim training. It took me a few weeks to just get comfortable in the water, float, and kick with my board – something my kids could master in two days perhaps. Progress was extremely slow – but this was my last chance and I kept going.

Then COVID hit. My swim coach is also a yoga teacher so my kids and I began yoga lessons on video. Through our yoga lessons, he also taught me the basics of swimming and the need to streamline the body using various asanas. This was a valuable addition to my learning.

When the pools finally opened after COVID, my coach invited me to join him for swimming lessons on WhatsApp.

Learning to swim with WhatsApp

I thought he was kidding! What could he possibly see from one end of the pool to the other?

Apparently, a skilled swim coach can see both above and below water. He had me set up my phone on a mini tripod and via WhatsApp, he gave me tips. Slowly I was able to kick, breathe, drill, and swim. It was a great feeling.

I continued my weekly sessions at my gym and then moved to our local public high school pool. It also had a few lanes that were just 4 to 5 feet in depth. I did not panic when I stopped to catch my breath.

A year and a half of regular training later, I am now able to swim across the pool reasonably well using breaststroke and backstroke. I’m still in the process of building skills and strength in the freestyle and butterfly. 

WhatsApp helped me go from zero to swimmer.

A coach from across the world

I do get strange looks at the pool – folks wonder who I’m speaking to poolside. Some of them were fascinated and encouraging, while others asked me to shut it down – they assumed I was recording them as their lanes were visible. – I understood their concerns so I complied. After a while, I was accepted as that weird student with a coach on video from across the world.

I work out every day and diligently continue to practice. I’m making progress.

After I retired I went to my coach’s pool in Pune – Bluewater Sports Academy in Baner. The coaches and students swim at a pace that takes my breath away. I did my best to keep up!

It was hard to get used to a pool that was not heated but I realized I had to learn to love cold water. After the first few laps, I forgot the pool was not heated.  I was the slowest in the pool, but my cousin, his two sons, and the assistant coaches were kind and accepting of this senior citizen. I spent many evenings watching the young ones in absolute amazement. The kids work hard, having fun as they slowly master swimming with precision and speed. The classes ran for 6 days a week, 1.5 hours every day for a very nominal fee – I could not have asked for a better coaching experience.  

All you need is a smartphone and tripod!

I am back in Sunnyvale. I’m at the high school pool at 6 a.m. practicing the tough workouts my video coach sends me. I am far from “done.” Freestyle breathing is still my biggest challenge and I can but have not really spent much time at the deep end. 

WhatsApp is a lifeline for Indians who want to keep in touch with family, friends, and the world in general, but it also offers other possibilities. 

If anyone has a burning desire to learn to swim like I did, try the coaches at BSA. All you need is a pool where you feel comfortable standing, a smartphone with WhatsApp, and a mini tripod! 

To find out more, contact Shantha at sunnyvaleres@gmail.com 

Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash

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