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Fears Surface, Dry Up Under Go-Easy Guidance : Shrinking the Pool of Adult Non-Swimmers

July 16, 1985|MIKE EBERTS | Eberts, a graduate student at USC, is a Times summer intern. and

It happened halfway across the globe more than 30 years ago, but Godofredo Astudillo remembers the incident clearly.

When he was 8 years old, he went to a reservoir near his native Manila with a couple of friends.

As a prank, one of the youngsters pushed him into the water. Astudillo's panicked reaction was ignored. "On the way down, everybody thought I was joking."

When he bobbed back up to the surface, gasping for air, his arms thrashing wildly, somebody pushed him down again. "Only on the third time did they pick me up.

Country Kids, City Kid

"They were country kids and I was a city kid. They didn't know I couldn't swim," explained Astudillo, adding that he "almost drowned."

Now 39 and a Los Angeles resident, Astudillo said: "That fear you carry for the rest of your life."

A poll released last year by the National Park Service found swimming to be the nation's most popular outdoor activity, with 51% of those interviewed saying they had gone swimming in the previous three months.

Yet, a sizable proportion of adults are non-swimmers. Each summer, many non-swimmers decide literally to take the plunge, either for the exercise value, the social benefits, to help their children learn to swim, for the personal challenge or, as with Astudillo, to confront a lifelong fear.

"There are quite a few adults out there who would enjoy being comfortable in the water," said Woody Cox, senior director at the Hollywood YMCA. He said that adults who haven't learned to swim "develop an apprehension of the water."

According to Jeannie McCoy, recreation director of the community services program at East Los Angeles College, most adult beginning swim students "have had a bad experience in the water."

Cox said the typical non-swimming adult who comes to the YMCA has "been in the water a few times as a youth, and then has stayed away."

He contends that virtually anyone can be taught to swim. He said many of the adults who come for lessons are over 40 and recognize the exercise value, but "it is hard to exercise in the water if you don't know how to swim." The pressure to swim is greater in Southern California, he added, where "you're always close to water."

Ralph Olivas, who teaches in the ELAC program, said much of his job involves listening to the apprehensions that students have built up. "It stops them dead in their tracks," he said. "I try to break the fear."

Olivas said he teaches by example, slowly getting his students into deeper water, cautious not to fuel their fears. The key, he said, is to first gain their confidence, then inspire self-confidence in the students.

There are those who "are just completely embarrassed about not being able to swim," Olivas said. "Sometimes they are afraid to talk to me." By teaming them with his best students, he explains, "I build two people: I build confidence in the good person and a beginning in the other person."

It is shortly after 6 p.m. on a warm summer night at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Pool in the Florence area of South-Central Los Angeles. Twenty-one adults have straggled in for one of the free bilingual adult beginning swim lessons offered twice weekly at this county pool, which operates year-round.

Pool manager Dana Payton and lifeguard Federico Ricketts start with a poolside chat. "We line them up with their backs to the pool," Payton explained. "Otherwise they'll be looking at the water and not hear a word you say."

Payton starts with the absolute basics. "Rule No. 1: You can breathe out under water, but you can't breathe in." Nervous laughter comes from the group.

Next comes a sort of aquatic audition. Some do a rough approximation of a swim stroke, kick madly and stop when they have to take a breath. Others dog-paddle. Still others can do little more than walk in the shallow end of the pool.

All have taken an important first step. "Once you get them in the water, they're usually OK," Payton said. "But getting them in is the trick."

The students are sorted into three groups: the beginners, those who need to work on a stroke, those who need to work on a kick.

Ricketts teaches the 10-person beginner group. Nine are women. He starts them off slowly, asking them to put their faces in the water. Most do so, albeit rather tentatively.

Holding Their Breath

Next, they try holding their breath under water. To reinforce the feeling of security, they hold hands in a circle at the shallow end of the pool. First, they submerge as a group for a couple of seconds. Then they take turns going to the middle of the circle and holding their breath under water for as long as they can while the group counts.

It creates a healthy combination of security and competitiveness, says the instructor. An 11th person, a woman who has watched the beginning of the lesson warily from the deck, finally joins in, but can't bring herself to go under water when her turn comes.

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