Learning How To Swim, From Aquaphobia To Aqua Crush

Learning How To Swim, From Aquaphobia To Aqua Crush

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Channel swimmers, marathon swimmers, ice swimmers, and winter swimmers are the luminaries, heroes and heroines in the open water swimming world.

They swim the further, sacrifice the most, endure the longest, manage the coldest, and encounter the toughest conditions possible. They face the inherent risks of the cold whether they swim in the English Channel or a German lake; they face sharks and jellyfish in tropical venues; they can face both in some locations like the Cook Strait or Cape Town, they face everything: cold, currents, and marine life.

These swimmers epitomize courage, commitment, and character. They are the pillars and the inspirations of the open water swimming community.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are plenty of adults with aquaphobia, a persistent fear of water – one of the most common types of phobias. Many adults never learned how to swim and have to face their inabilities and fears around water. Knowing they cannot swim and knowing the threat of drowning for themselves and their children, their aquaphobia is difficult to overcome. Some of these people seek assistance and find a way and a motivation to step up to the pool deck and commit themselves to become water-safe.

Marcellus Wiley is a retired professional American football defensive end who played 10 seasons in the National Football League and was a Pro Bowler. Known as Datdude, he is frequently seen and heard on television and on the radio as a commentator, but he could not swim. But he does now and has taken his message that swim is a life-saving skill that needs to be learned by all.

Datdude in Manhattan Beach, California

Kelly Gneiting is another late bloomer in the open water. The 6-foot, 200 kg (430-pound) American sumo wrestler from Rexburg, Idaho. Gneiting notched a DNF in a crossing of the Anacapa Channel in July 2014, but then he can back and successfully swam sidestroke in a 22.5 km double width crossing of Bear Lake in 16 hours 13 minutes in August 2014, becoming the fourth person to have completed that course. Then, he topped that goal with a 35.4 km crossing of Navajo Lake in 2015 in New Mexico in 22 hours 46 minutes.

Kelly Gneiting in Navajo Lake between New Mexico and Colorado

Steven Munatones says, “Learning how to swim later in life takes courage. It takes determination and fortitude to start something that has gripped you in fear for your entire life. For some, it is skydiving. For others, it is learning a new skill, job, or how to drive. Whatever it is, the activity can make your heart pound wildly or your skin perspire involuntarily. Your breathing can become shallow just thinking about the new skill. For new swimmers, they can stress about everything that can possibly go wrong as they step up to face their fear.

For some who have never swum in their adult lives, their fear may come from a traumatic experience in their early lives. Their fear of the water is deeply embedded in their DNA and may have been rooted they were at a pool with their friends or at the beach or a lake when they were young. For many, they entered the water – willingly or unwillingly – and nearly drowned. They felt themselves sinking with a desperate feeling that their chest was caving in and life as about to end. After they were either saved by a friend or a parent, or came to the surface by their own frantic efforts, they never wanted to swim again. Even the thought of simply standing in ankle-deep water can cause hyperventilation, perspiration, and heart palpitations among those with the greatest phobia.

Others, just never had the opportunity to learn how to swim. They rationally – or irrationally – fear the unknown. Rather than take a chance, they play it safe and stay onshore or on the pool deck and never to even purchase swimwear, let alone change into a swimsuit.”

Sometimes, those with aquaphobia resolve their fears through different ways. For some, it is a very gradual process. Munatones added, “It is very encouraging to see their courage and willingness to face their fears in the water. Patience and understanding are the key to helping these individuals learn how to stay afloat, breathe and move safely in the water. They are occasionally joined with similarly-minded friends or co-workers. They may walk away from the pool on their first – or second or third – try. They may stifle a cry or shed a tear when they first step into the pool. But with a drive that can only come from within, they gradually get over the mental obstacles and learn the basics of movement in the water. Just as the marathon swimmers show a rare, fierce courage to cross a channel and overcome cold, tides, currents, marine life and waves, the newbies are similarly courageous to take their first stroke.”

For others, it is quick – and results in a complete shift in their mindset. They transform from having aquaphobia to having an aqua crush. Syamala Goli of India was such an individual [shown above]. She explains, “I am not a swimmer from childhood. I just started learning how to swim only four years ago. My own journey went through some very tough stages from aquaphobia to aqua crush. Now I am in deep love with water. 

We have no awareness on swimming in [my area] (Telugu states in India). I came from a very small farmer’s family with a lot of struggles with money. We had no chances to go out and do something after a marriage in our families.”

In a rare feat of perseverance and ability, Goli increased her maximum lifetime swimming distances from 0 km to 10 km in only one month, all without any coach or any assistance. She admits, “I am not perfect in the freestyle stroke and I am still looking how to train better.”

She set her goals high. The most famous channel swim in her area is a 30 km crossing of the Palk Strait between Sri Lanka and India. She just completed the crossing in 13 hours 43 minutes, largely training herself, a remarkable achievement for the 47-year-old India entrepreneur. She explains her unusual motivation and goals, “When I saw an article regarding a crossing of the English Channel two years back, I was inspired to do it. My open water interest started like that two years ago. Now, I can swim 30 to 40 km in a pool as well as in the open water.  I have no proper guidance on training, diet, or workouts. Just running, swimming and light warm-ups are in my daily activities. I eat homemade food like, boiled eggs, rice, curd, etc., it is my simple diet.  We have very very little encouragement in India, but I was the first person to participated in FINA World Masters Swimming Championship open water event from India in 2019. I feel proud to represent our nation in the FINA World Masters.”

From Datdude and Gneiting to Goli, these inspirational stories in the open water show how the unlikely achievement of personal goals can become possible in the open water.

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