Whether I’m being forced to participate in a team-building icebreaker or I’m trying to make conversation on a first date, I have one go-to fact about myself that always works: I can’t swim. I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but I’ve reached my late 20s still have to hold my nose when I go underwater. I’ll turn 30 next year, and I’m ready to find a new fun fact.
My mother wants you to know that my inability to swim is not her fault; I did in fact take swim lessons as a kid. I remember that the classes took place in a local Marriott pool in my New Jersey hometown, and that pool had a waterfall. But while the luxurious image of that indoor pool somehow imprinted in my brain, the ability to float, or cannonball, or even dunk my head underwater did not.
I travel regularly for work and for fun, which means I’m often lucky enough to be near a body of water. On professional trips, I’ve turned down the opportunity for (free!) surf lessons more times than should be legal. With friends, I’ve missed the opportunity to jump into a waterfall in Costa Rica or off the side of a boat in Texas. The inability to swim means I miss out on all sorts of water-adjacent activities like jet skiing, stand-up paddleboarding, and the cliché rom-com moment when a love interest dunks my head underwater in a pool.
This is by no means a sob story—I’m incredibly lucky to have these opportunities, and in lieu of participating in water sports, I’ve become a champion poolside layer, watcher of wallets, and beachfront reader of YA novels. I’ve perfected the level of swimming I do feel comfortable doing: At the beach, I’ll wade into water as deep as my chest and roll with the waves in the same way my friends do. But I’ve always felt a cold core of panic underneath my casual splashing. If I notice my group drifting too far into the ocean, I’ll slowly try to inch my way back to shore, still participating in conversation, hoping no one notices I’m subtly trying to move back to land.
I turned my inability to swim into a punchy fun fact, but the moment I’m hit with any follow-up questions, I have a hard time explaining. “I just never learned” isn’t quite true, because I had taken lessons. “I don’t like the water” is also a lie, because I’m always willing to wade in and I have a Leo’s addiction to the sun. After a decade of opting out of water-related activities, I had even reframed my “no” as empowering. I felt proud that I knew myself and my body well enough to steer clear of surfboards and kayaks. But as I inch toward a new decade, I’m ready for a new challenge and a new narrative.
So, about 20 years after my first set of swim lessons, I decided to try them again.
My first challenge was finding a coach and a pool in NYC. I scheduled phone calls with various swim schools. I pictured myself in various possible scenarios: Treading water in a group of adult learners, towering over toddlers in bikini tutus, or commuting from a luxury pool uptown to my Brooklyn apartment with a tote bag full of wet clothes. One potential coach wanted me to commit to five lessons over two weeks. Another asked me immediately and abruptly if I had experienced any trauma associated with water.
I decided to work with Kate Pelatti, COO at Imagine Swimming, who asked thoughtful questions about my experience in the water and didn’t make me feel embarrassed to be what my high school would call a “super senior.” Best of all, one of Imagine Swimming’s 14(!) pools was at CUNY Medgar Evers, a college located about two blocks from my apartment. I planned to dress for my first lesson in what I deemed my most professional swimwear: A high-waisted bikini with the sturdy straps of a sports bra. We set a date for my first lesson, and scheduled it for 30 minutes, or 40 if, as Pelatti wrote via email, “the energy was there.” Of course I can go 40 minutes, I thought, I’m in great shape.
I moved on to mentally planning a surf trip to Australia where I’d impress the locals as an adult-onset swim prodigy. I felt half nervous, half preemptively proud that I had taken action, and absolutely sure that I’d be an Olympic swimmer within a few weeks.
When I arrived at the pool, reality hit.
I fell off my high horse the moment I stepped into the locker room. On a weekday afternoon, I expected an empty room or perhaps one impossibly chic person who was also choosing to better themselves. Instead, the room was filled with the people who I guess are most likely to be swimming on weekday afternoons: children. Women who looked about my age helped little boys into their bathing suits, the same 4- and 5-year-olds who were about to completely own me in the water.
Thankfully, Pelatti had agreed to meet me for four one-on-one sessions. That meant I didn’t have to learn alongside actual children, just near them, at a much slower pace. I was the only non-instructor over 10 in the pool. It was hysterical and mortifying, and I wish I could have taken pictures without seeming even creepier than I already did as the only adult in the pool.
Pelatti brought me goggles and a swim cap, and the first thing I learned was how to dunk my cap in the water before putting it on like Katie Ledecky. (Unlike Ledecky, I needed Pelatti to help me put my cap on for the subsequent month.) From there, we climbed down the pool ladder and found our own corner about 20 feet away from a group of kids.
My first task: learning to hold my breath.
For those first 30 minutes, Pelatti demonstrated how to blow bubbles in the water using my nose and mouth. The breath is simultaneously the simplest and most difficult part of swimming, and it’s the breath that I’ve always had trouble with. Once I could instinctively hold my breath underwater, we thought, the rest would follow. We were right—but it was much harder than I expected.
Do an exercise for me: Make the face you use when blowing out birthday candles. Your mouth becomes a perfect “O,” and that’s how it should stay, Pelatti taught me, while breathing out underwater. I spent 10 minutes bobbing from above to below the water, thinking “birthday cake, birthday cake, birthday cake” the entire time. With that down, it was time to go underwater while blowing out my nose—the same effortless motion I’d watched my friends (and the 5-year-olds a few feet away) do for two decades while unable to replicate it myself.
I did it, but it required all my mental energy. I imagined the deep, body-filling breath I had learned through yoga, and thought yoga, yoga, yoga every time I went from above to below. It was exhilarating to achieve, and also much harder than I expected.
Like a good coach, Pelatti made sure I ended the lesson feeling accomplished. I spent the last few minutes learning to float on my back—a position that requires a flat back and high, proud chest and chin. Once again channeling a yoga instructor giving form modifications, I was able to pop up into a back float easily. I did a few laps of our lane kicking on my back, immediately forgot how hard the underwater portion had been, and ended the lesson feeling like a swimming prodigy. Pelatti told me to practice breathing in the bath, and sent me home until lesson two.
The next week, I found myself really looking forward to my lesson. This time, Pelatti had me do “bobs” in the water. I jumped up and down “like a rabbit,” going under each time. The repeated jumps were meant to get my breathing in a comfortable rhythm. It reminded me of the times I’ve tried meditation and spent the whole session thinking I’m not thinking. As much as I wanted to lose myself in the process immediately, I had to concentrate hard to keep my fear of feeling short of breath underwater at bay. But eventually, it did feel mindless, the exact way I assume everyone else feels when they jump into a pool. In fact, it made me so happy to feel like I was going underwater “normally” that I didn’t want to move on—but it was time for phase two.
With the breathing down, Pelatti had me hold a kickboard and attempt to kick my feet to swim, the same exercise some kids were doing a few lanes over. I completed the exercise, but it required total concentration and 100 percent of my brainpower to do. Pelatti termed the lesson a “breakthrough.” I was thrilled to have accomplished a physical task, the same way I imagine a carpenter feels looking at a just-completed bench.
Feeling empowered, we scheduled two more lessons. The first ended up being one of those Freelance Mondays where I woke up, immediately started working from bed, and didn’t look away from my computer (let alone brush my teeth) until 3 P.M. I didn’t have time to mentally dwell on the exercises like I’d done in the past—I just grabbed my suit and walked to the pool.
My long, stressful day met me in the water. After our progress last week, Pelatti had me try dolphin jumps. The move involves creating an arrow with your hands in front of your face, then jumping headfirst into the water (or, ideally, an incoming wave.) As you exhale underwater, your body sinks deeper. Pelatti demonstrated the move I’d seen hundreds of times at the beach. It looked simple enough—but I panicked every time I went under. I felt like I was running out of breath underwater and kept popping back up before I really had time to sink.
During that lesson and the next, we moved on to the butterfly stroke and returned to bobs for more practice holding my breath underwater. But I never achieved the same flow that I had felt in the beginning, when I was learning just as quickly as the kids in the next lane. Fitness instructors are always yelling in class about how that last rep is all about mind over matter, but it wasn’t until I tried to swim that I realized just how intensely my thoughts control what my body is capable of.
I wanted to end this story with a triumphant anecdote and a cute video for my Instagram of me jumping off a diving board. But I was so frustrated during my final lesson that I didn’t even have the courage to try. With a bit of distance, I can see how much progress I did make: I learned to float on my back, to do a few various strokes, and to hold my breath underwater. But more importantly, I was reminded of the importance of staying present, of moving through frustration, and letting myself fail. Swim lessons were a glitch in the matrix that is my typical routine, and for that alone, it was worth it.
I’ll be on vacation next week, and I can’t wait to test my skills in the wild. And maybe next summer, I’ll feel ready for that surf lesson.