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The black guy who can’t float: why I ultimately( almost) learned to swim

A lack of access to pools and the money to pay for lessons drives a racial divide in swimming ability. But after getting married, I had no choice but to dive in

If you just relax, youll float. Everyone floats, Monica, their teachers, tells calmly while Im flapping my extremities in sheer terror. Im in the deep end of a Los Angeles swimming pool in May, and Im here to learn how to swim.

Swimming is not something I do , nor am I especially fond of is available on the water unless Im in a bubble bath. Why? Drowning. Choking. Sinking to the bottom. I just cant figure out why anyone would willfully set themselves in a situation where they could die so easily. Why risk it? I also feel this way about skydiving, rock climbing, and unprotected sexual relations with a stranger in a truck stop bathroom. But here I am today, decidedly taking this step or splash, if you will afford me the rhetorical indulgence.

Throughout my life, curious folks have often requested information about my aversion to swimming, and the conversation has inevitably turned to race. My mother-in-laws friend once told him that she heard black peoples skin was heavier, so they cant float easily. Im not one to stir up difficulty in a social situation. I dislike squabbles, especially when relatives are involved, and theres no way to win an debate like that. What was I supposed to do weigh my own skin to prove her incorrect? All I could do was shrug my shoulders and say, Maybe.

At the pond. Photograph: Maggie West for the Guardian

In truth, black people not swimming is something of a public health problem. A study by the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention found that 10 people succumb every day from drowning. Black and Hispanic youths are far more likely to drown than white kids. Seventy percent of black infants cannot swim, while merely 42% of white infants reported a lack of swimming ability.

The reason for this has nothing to do with physical differences and all is do with lack of access. In America, swimming is not a ability were required to learn. Its a privilege afforded to the fortunate souls who live near a pond or accessible natural body of water, and who can afford to pay for lessons. This excludes inner city African Americans who lack one or both of those opportunities.

I was fortunate to live in a small town in rural central California, in a middle-class military family that could afford swimming lessons. Still, I was about as unconventional as one could be in a very conservative part of the state. My Caucasian parent was in the air force and my African American mom bided at home to take care of the kids.

In an effort to get me out of the house and away from the Star Trek reruns that consumed most of my time, she tried to expose me to all manner of extracurricular activities: tap dancing, racquetball, jazzercise, and, eventually, swimming. I repudiated every single pastime, but especially swimming. I didnt watch the phase. I didnt like the water, and as a result I was a dodgy swimmer. I opted spending my hour on something I had a preternatural knack for: staying indoors.

As I get older , not swimming fit into a comfortable cultural narrative: the black guy who cant float. The stereotype became something of a crutch that propped me up, but also made me dependent.

Then I married into a southern California family. They all swim and most of them surf, which is so far beyond my ability to comprehend that they might as well tell me they can bend spoonfuls with their intellects or communicate with dolphins. When we went on our honeymoon in Hawaii, my spouse was concerned Id have nothing to do; her childhood vacations consisted of bouncing from one body of water to another.

In freshly purchased trunks. Photograph: Maggie West for the Guardian

I knew from the working day we married that I was going to have to learn, at least so I could understand why my in-laws felt compelled to expend so much of their free time in the ocean. In the process, I believed I might better grasp what it is that keeps so many people like myself from acquiring this ability. So, on a swelteringly hot day, I drove up to the San Fernando Valley for my first swimming lesson.

Theres no shortfall of swimming teachers in Los Angeles. Its a little bit like functioning as a nanny, a personal trainer, a nutritionist, or an agent youre a gatekeeper for an important aspect of living in this place. Aqua Buddy refers to itself as LAs primer[ sic] mobile swimming school and provides Parent& Me, Toddler Water Safety, and swimming techniques for all the swimming strokes. Theyll drive to your home swimming pool, like a Postmates or Instacart for vital life abilities, I guess.

As one might expect, most of these classes are for children under the age of 15, so seeing a course of study that wouldnt include me wearing floaties or singing ballads about water safety was difficult. The Los Angeles YMCA offered adult class, but I was worried about being intimidated in a large public gymnasium.

An encounter with a pool noodle. Photo: Maggie West for the Guardian

Finally, I determined Emily Cohen, an instructor who operates a school called the Water Whisperer out of a pool in Sherman Oaks, an affluent community in the San Fernando Valley. The name alone voiced comforting, presumably because it reminded me of the Robert Redford film The Horse Whisperer, which always seems to set me to sleep when it was on cable. The Water Whisperer website claimed a 95% success rate and explicitly mentioned their ability to train adults to overcome their aquatic phobia. Plus, it was about 20 minutes from my house.

The morning of my first lesson, I satisfy Cohen at her pond. Shes open and non-threatening like a kindergarten educator, but also possesses the kind of stern, paternal qualities that make you not want to frustrate her. She describes her method as developmental. Its layered, and its structured. Little kids feel safe when they know whats coming next. Theres also original sungs, marionettes. The only thing more frightening than drowning is puppets, but I was insured there would be none during my lesson.

She asks me why I dont swim. I mention my dread, and that because so many black people dont swimming, its built it easier for me to avoid learning. Shes not amazed. In fact, she tells the majority of adults who come to her are African American. They say they had a bad experience or the family didnt have money. If they came from urban areas like New York City, it simply wasnt a big thing or their parents couldnt afford lessons.

On the leading edge. Photograph: Maggie West for the Guardian

After stripping down to my freshly bought trunks, I carefully walk around the pool slowly, so as not to fall and sink. I begin my exercisings with Emilys assistant, Monica, to get me comfortable with breathing techniques. When you go down, try to keep your eyes open as long as you can. Run in slowly, and recollect, Im right here if you need me, she says reassuringly. I suck in as much air as I can and submerge my head. I get a solid five seconds in and bolt back up before I run out of oxygen, having felt the cold specter of demise nipping at my heels.

Periodically during the breathing exercises, Monica puts a hand on my shoulder and offers words of encouragement. Youre doing great, she says. Youre a natural. Here I am, a 31 -year-old breathing prodigy. Who knew I had this talent inside of me?

Cohen describes the three steps of overcoming dread of water as dedicating a high five, being brave and doing it anyway. The fourth should be receiving appeals to ones vanity, because that always works on me. You are literally the best swimmer I have ever seen, they should say. Is that Dave Schilling in the pool or Kevin Costner from Waterworld? Id never stop swimming.

The floating workouts rock my confidence. Monica cant seem to get me to flatten out my body enough to practice kicking. It looks like Im not flat because of how big my butt is, I say. Fortunately, they giggle rather than asking me nicely to get out of the pond and walking home. That should be another urban myth about why black people dont swimming. Their ass are just too big. I have an ass for boxing people out in basketball , not for swimming.

Im assured that its not my ass thats maintaining me from floating. Its my anxiety. Im too tense and not letting the physics to sort themselves out. Im sink because I expect to sink or something like that. Its my bloody death wish thats maintaining me from floating!

A 31 -year-old prodigy. Photograph: Maggie West for the Guardian

Then, the stern-parent thing with Emily kicks in and I choose I dont want to let her down. On my next endeavor, I inhale more slowly. I calm down enough to prevent my fear of the water swallowing me up from taking over, and it passes to me that Ive likely been overthinking this my entire life. Ive been so worried about how I appear without a shirt on, whether or not my scalp is too black or too thick, and what other people think of me, that I couldnt merely engage with the task at hand. Swimming is not an intellectual workout. Its visceral, and bringing heavy guess into the pool with me isnt helping.

Finally, I float. Not for long, but I get there. I earn a few high-fives, which I enjoy. Our last exercising is swimming to the wall. Monica will hold my hands while I kick my way to salvation, then Ill do it by myself, but with her hand on my back so that I know people around to save me if I get overwhelmed.

I swam, sort of. Photograph: Maggie West for the Guardian

We move on to swimming the length of the pool. I get to be about 6ft away from the wall before I run out of breath and swallow a big gulp of pond water. Id practised breathing out of my mouth and my nose while underwater, but I had tried to do both at the same time and foolishly opened my mouth a little bit too much. I dont panic. I dont wail or call or groan. I just go back to it. I know that theres someone there to help me through it.

Im winded, but I successfully complete the unassisted laps, though you can hardly call what I did a proper lap. I swam, kind of just enough to retain my dignity. Emily and Monica tell me how great I did. Only nine more classes to go.

I ask how much a further course of study would expense, and its not cheap. But if I ever want to feel fully a part of my new extended family, Im going to have to do it.

Success. Photograph: Maggie West for the Guardian

For many children in nearby neighborhoods like Watts or Compton, the idea of paying for swimming lessons is something akin to a fantasy a rite of passage for other people , not you. Youll be told that its your fault, your body defect for being too black to float. Its not your hair or your bones. Its something far more insidious. Its a system to build you feel inferior economically and emotionally.

After my lesson, I realized that I never learned to swim because I didnt believe I deserved to. The fear of not being good enough overpowered my dread of drowning. Whats the phase of moping about for the rest of my life as though I cant do something? I should be grateful that I have the time and the resources to even do this, when so many people dont. When I came home, my spouse asked me if I learned how to swim. Not yet, I told her. But at least Im trying, which is a good start.

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