Monday, March 24, 2014

Swim Lessons

     I taught our two oldest kids Braden and Penelope to swim at our old apartment's pool in Kaimuki (supplemented by two swim classes each at the Y.) In my experience, kids love the water—getting wet and cold all over, splashing, playing, jumping, kicking, and flinging about plastic pool toys. If they hesitated, I just showed them how and they took it from there.
     What they didn't like at first was water in their eyes, ears, noses, and mouths. It was understandable—a totally new, shocking sensory experience taking them to an alien blurry world in which everything sounded muffled and plingy-plongy, their eyes stung, noses ran, ears plugged up, and throats and tongues got parched and chalky-dry—not much fun for newbies. But learning to swim required full head immersion—no swimming with head held high out of the water for me.
     The first step was to get them to voluntarily put their chins in the water and to have them gradually increase their depths and durations to total head immersion lasting at least several seconds. The best thing for that, I found, was limbo while seated on the pool stairs—duck under my arm (secured at one end to a hand rail) from one side to the other, gradually lowering my arm until their mouths, then noses, then eyes, then entire head got submerged as they passed beneath. Once past that stage, they ducked their heads under to fetch objects placed on successively lower steps in the pool.
     Another step (yet occurring simultaneously) was to get them to learn to float on their backs. My kids are “sinkers” (inherited from me)--no matter how relaxed they got or deeply they breathed, or high they held their stomachs, their legs and butts descended so that they looked like half-submerged palm fronds. But that was okay, because that indicated their readiness for the next step—floating on their stomachs.
     Of course getting them to float face down with ears submerged was far more challenging, but through persistence, they eventually mastered it. After that, swimming came easy.
     And that's exactly how it was when I learned to swim at Kapoho Beach House on the Big Island.
     The best part of the Beach House was the outdoor fish pond with pebbly rocky shore separated by boulders from the translucent sea. Stocked with uhu (parrot fish), palani (surgeon fish), barracuda, a green sea turtle, manini (convict tang) humuhumunukunukuapuaa (trigger fish), other tropical fish, and a spindly orange Kona crab that hid among the craggy boulders, it was the most beautiful “natural” aquarium I have ever seen—feeding allowed anytime (barracudas darted the length of the pool in less than a second to fetch our bread offerings) and enter if you dared (we daren't—there was no need as we could see everything from above and those fish were huge and dangerous-looking in our eyes).
     Dad took us shore fishing nearby and I caught my longest fish ever—an eighteen inch stick fish. Dad had rigged a simple bamboo pole with line, hook, and float. While fishing, we could see the elegant green-yellow stick fish rods rippling in the shallow gathering tide and even our translucent white California shrimp bait balls suspended in their midst, so I didn't bother watching my line's balsa wood paddle-shaped float, which my sister Joan noticed standing on end.
     She said, “Tim, look at your floater.”
     I said, “I can see the bait, they're not taking it.” I raised my line to show and the line pulled back. A fish came up out of the water jiggling. I said, “I'm going to put it in the fish pond,” and headed that way, eager to see it in its new home.
     We got back and before letting the fish loose, Dad said, “Let me get my camera. I'll be right back.”
     I said, “The fish is going to die.”
     He said, “It's strong. I'll be right back.”
     After an eternity, he reemerged, opened his camera (it was built into its own leather carrying pouch), took the photo of me standing just so with fish dangling from the line, then, after resecuring his camera, he took my fish in hand, removed the hook, and tossed it limp as a licorice stick into the pond near the right side wall.
     Down it sank.
     The sea turtle paddled over, chomped it in two, then chomped down the remnants in less than three swallows. The fish hadn't even flinched. I berated Dad for his erroneous judgment; he apologized. Though disappointing, it became one of my fondest memories, perhaps because Dad was so structured and uncompromising, with high expectations that I seldom met.
     To the right of the fish pond and sharing the same separating wall was a sheltered swimming hole. Here, Mom, who I never saw swim and who said she might be able to swim fifteen feet if she had to, taught me to swim as she stood standing on the dry wall looking down on us.
     She told me, “Float cherry-bomb style,” and explained how. (The term came from splashing into water balled up tight.) I tried grappling my knees to my chest but hated the water flooding my sinus cavities, so I stood right back up after just a couple seconds, my back never attaining true parallel to the water's surface. On the third try after her repeated insistence I was doing it wrong I took a deep breath and held it as I assumed the position. After a moment, my shoulders bobbed to the surface and I saw the world turn topsy-turvy and what had been behind me was now beneath and before me—I was looking beneath and past my feet, upside down. Big happy congratulations followed; I felt proud of myself.
     I did this thrice, each time longer than the last. Then Mom had me float on my stomach while kicking. I tried but didn't get very far, the gentle currents drifting my body back and forth. She said, “Stroke your arms while kicking.” I tried and moved forward a bit, the world looking like chaotic bubbles amid my frantic splashing. She told me keep my legs straight while kicking and upon trying, I swam several feet forward, watching the underwater world pass beneath—my first real freestyle swim.
     And I taught my kids the exact same way once they mastered a cherry-bomb or prone float on their bellies. And they both learned from that point on with equal alacrity as I had.
     Kids take time—perhaps months or years—to feel comfortable enough in the water to sustain a face down float. But once they master that, learning to swim the basic freestyle stroke comes easy.
     (Note: I started teaching my kids to swim when they were about four or five, never with goggles, and only after they could master a face-down float, with an assistive float vest for my son, and float belt for my daughter—and these only for a short while. In general, I believe the less assistive devises the better—mainly so they can do without when necessary and enjoy the water however they find themselves. They are both proficient, though mediocre swimmers now, able to do basic freestyle, breast, and back strokes, and a rudimentary butterfly.)

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