Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Learning to swim

Last week I joined a gym that has a pool. The first time I went swimming I walked out of the locker room and couldn't find the entrance to the pool. There was one, but it was locked shut. I walked all around the glass walls -- I could see everyone swimming happily -- and finally found an unlocked door at the far corner of the wall. I walked in and a lifeguard looked at me with surprise. "No! You enter over there!" he said, pointing at an entrance connected directly to the locker rooms. "And leave your shoes!"

I deposited my flip-flops by the locker room and stepped in a big pool of water to clean my feet -- clearly this was the correct procedure. The lifeguard eyed my swimming trunks.

"You can't change here," he said. He was wearing a speedo-like suit, which seemed to be the norm.

"This is a swimming suit," I said.

Then I jumped in the water. When I emerged, the lifeguard was gesturing frantically at me.

"You have to wear a swimming cap!" he said.


"To keep the water clean," he said. "Can't you see that everyone else is wearing one?"

I couldn't, actually, because I wasn't wearing my glasses, but I didn't say anything.

"Where do I get one?" I asked.

"You have to buy one," he said.

"I didn't bring any money."

He looked at me wearily. "Okay," he said. "You can borrow mine."

Now I know what it feels like to be the stupid foreigner who doesn't understand how things are done. But it still doesn't make sense to me: we don't have to take a shower before getting into the pool, but we do have to wear a swimming cap! Oh well. Now I own my first swimming cap.

That same day, I tried to teach my friend Angel how to swim. She's never learned, and in the pool she's like a fish out of water. The very first thing I did was to demonstrate the dog paddle. "Just do this," I said. She tried, and immediately sank like a stone. She came back up, spluttering. "Okay," I said. "First, we'll learn how to kick." I remembered from my fourth grade lessons that kicking was one of the first things I learned. Together, we held the edge of the pool and began to kick. "Try to make small splashes," I said. She wasn't making much progress, and I could see why: her legs were moving in and out, instead of up and down. "Push against the water," I said. "Against the water." She seemed to improve a bit, and I found a swimming board. "Practice with this," I said. She grasped it firmly and kicked until she was out of breath, but she stayed in the same spot. "Okay," I said. "Let's take a break from that and learn how to use the hands." I showed her how to close the fingers so water can't get through, and how to paddle. "You should feel the water," I said. "Push against the water."

We went back the next day and kept at it. I tried teaching her how to float on her back, how to float on her stomach, and how to avoid getting water in her nose while underwater. At the end of the day we tried the dog paddle again. She gave it all her effort, and sank like a stone.

I suppose learning how to swim is a lot like learning how to ride a bike, or learning a language: if you do it when you're young, it seems completely natural for the rest of your life. I don't remember learning, so I'm probably not the best person to teach. Anyway, if anyone has any advice, any at all, about how to teach someone how to swim, please send it to me as fast as possible.


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