Many years ago we were at Celina with friends. Bill, my husband was in a boat on the lake with our oldest son who was very little. They were “fishing” when it occurred to me that if there were an accident, I would be helpless because I couldn’t swim. I couldn’t even tread water and scream.
In spite of the fear generated by my one experience in a swimming pool when I managed to stove all 10 of my toes while pretending to be Esther Williams, a swimming movie star of the old days, I knew I had to learn how to swim.
The Greenville City Park swimming pool offered evening lessons for swimming impaired adults under the capable and patient direction of the pool manager, the late and great Clarence Gueth.
There were five of us in the class, all female, all in our late 20s. I was nervous but determined.
Mr. Gueth ordered us into the pool. Reluctantly, I stepped into the water and walked slowly down the slope until the water covered me. This was good now nobody could see me in my bathing suit.
Then he told us to put our faces in the water. This was bad. Water rushed up my nose, and I had a coughing fit. I was ready to quit, but Mr. Gueth gritted his teeth and told me I had to stay. I had the feeling that my lessons would be harder for him than for me.
The next thing I remember clearly was learning to float. “Just lay back in the water and let your feet come up,” he instructed. It worked for the others, but every time my feet came up, my head went down, and my whole body sank.
Mrs. Gueth had been watching us, and she came to my rescue. She stood there calmly and explained the water displacement theory to me. I don’t remember a single word of the theory today, but it must have made sense to me then because I tried again and I floated.
Floating was most enjoyable. Then we added a little kick, and I could propel my body anywhere in the pool.
He lined all of us up on one side of the pool and told us to float to the other side. No problem for me. Somehow I managed t0o float right over the top of the others and end up at the other end of the line when we reached the other side. There was a terse warning about not drowning the other swimmers, and then he said, “Now roll over.”
First I tried to talk him out of this step. It meant the face in the water routine again. He was adamant, so I really tried. I just couldn’t do it without sinking. Finally my much younger cousin told me just to act like I was rolling over in bed. She was right.
I could turn over in the water, but I preferred to float on my back. On my face I could only float as long as I could hold my breath.
Slowly I made progress. Finally one evening after many weeks of instruction and practice, Mr. Gueth took me to the deep end of the pool and told me it was time for my test. I had to dive into the water and swim back to the buoys on the rope that separated the deep end of the pool from the more shallow end.
I told him I wasn’t ready. He summoned all of his considerable patience and persuasion and managed to convince me I really could swim. What neither of us realized was that I couldn’t swim and breathe at the same time.
He said, “Go!” and to this day I think he pushed me in, but he swore he didn’t. I was shoving water behind me as fast as I could, holding my breath, my eyes shut tight when I realized I had to let my breath out slowly
My breath was all gone before I reached the rope, but I knew I had to keep stroking until my feet hit bottom and my head would be above water. I made one more mighty reach for the rope, missed it, but stood up anyway.
There was Mr. Gueth, standing by the same rope, clapping enthusiastically.
“You did it! I knew you could! You passed!” He said I reached right over the rope. Maybe I did. After all I floated right over four other people.
Well, anyway, I was confident I could tread water and scream if I had to, And I could and did sigh up every one of our children for swimming lessons as soon as they were old enough so they could save themselves.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This column first appeared in the Greenville Advocate on June 16, 2004.