Class shows it's never too late to learn swimming

By Katy Bergen/Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Headline Goes Here Rachel S. O'Hara/Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Carolyn Mason harbored a deep fear of swimming in water before she decided to participate in Miracle Swimming classes geared toward adults. Here Mason brings her face in and out of the water as instructor Annie O'Connor looks on.

SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) - In an hour it will be time, but Carolyn Mason feels a strange sense of calm as she waits on her porch on this warm Saturday in April.

A gentle breeze rocks her hanging plants and eases the humidity for a couple of hours. The perfect beach day, she thinks, the kind of day that calls people to pile into cars and head to South Lido Park.

When she was a child and the family traveled to Caspersen Beach -- the "colored beach" south of Venice -- her mother would issue a sharp warning.

"You stay away from the water, because you can't drink it all," said her mother, whose stern voice Mason adored, even when it made her shake.

So Mason was content to dip her ankles into the Gulf, and the girl who avoided the water, who would one day be a teenage mom and Sarasota's first black female mayor, turned her attention to other things.

Friends and acquaintances drowned in the Gulf over the years, and a little girl's reluctance to go in the water turned to fear.

Mason sighs now and heads to her car, leaving slightly early for a small, concrete complex that houses a swimming pool. It's as if she is impatient to get started, to see if this time will be different.

Her cell phone rings in the parking lot.

Her grandson, calling from North Port, wants to fish that afternoon in a pond near her home.

"You can't come until 5," Mason reminds the boy. "I have swimming."

. . .

Knowing how to swim seems an innate part of living in Southwest Florida. Tourists and locals alike head to the beaches on the weekends for sport and leisure.

Yet for many people here and throughout America, learning to swim is a privilege, thwarted by barriers such as the cost of instruction, access to water and cultural factors, including the lasting effects of segregation. (Studies show that African-American children drown at a rate nearly three times higher than white children.)

Drownings are proof that there is perhaps no other skill or activity where a lack of proficiency so often costs lives.

Adults like Mason, 64, harbor another significant impediment: a deep-rooted fear of water.

Mason tried lessons last summer. She dreaded putting her face in and struggled as an instructor tried to teach her body to move. Once, she drove all the way to a lesson and parked, gripping the steering wheel and hyperventilating until she turned back for home.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 37 percent of American adults can't swim the length of a pool. It's difficult to track how many adults are considered "fearful" of water, but the condition cuts across race, class and age.

As a child, Luisa Carrasco, 41, a tall, expressive woman from the Dominican Republic, sank to the bottom of a river, where she was helpless until someone rescued her.

Maribel Castillo, 38, didn't have access to a pool when she lived in Mexico. She wants to take her three kids to the pool, or the ocean, but then the fear comes.

Nancy Gooch, 59, has a pool in her backyard in Sarasota, but she rarely goes in it. She worries she can't save her young grandson if he gets in trouble.

These women heard of a swim program taught this spring by Sarasota instructor Melon Dash, who founded the Miracle Swimming swim program for fearful adults in 1983.

This year, Mason got a call from Rob Butcher, the executive director of Sarasota-based U.S. Masters Swimming, who was aware of her failed attempts to learn to swim.

Butcher knew that a U.S. Masters Swimming grant had helped support Dash's program. And Dash was getting ready to offer a free adult class as a USMS national campaign rolled out this year aimed to create more learning opportunities for adults.

Try again, Butcher told Mason. I have the perfect program for you.

. . .

On the first day of Dash's class Mason listens as others answer the questions: Why are you here? When did the fear start?

For as long as she can remember, Mason says, she has been terrified of water, of pools and lakes and oceans. Mason talks about her asthma. About her mother -- who died abruptly when Mason was 14 -- and her warnings about water. About a childhood friend swallowed by the Gulf.

"It was really traumatic because she was a playmate," Mason says. "That made me more afraid of the water."

Mason is a longtime resident of Newtown, and a Booker High and Sarasota High student who got her GED at night school after becoming pregnant as a high school senior.

Later in life, the woman who was booted from her home and taken in by her boyfriend's grandmother would return to Newtown and enter politics. Mason, a former mayor and current county commissioner, has worked to bring swimming opportunities to children. And still, the fear of water is real.

Dash, a former University of Massachusetts at Amherst swimmer, listens as the women share their personal traumas, and then outlines the philosophy on which her class is based.

Her teaching method is centered on five "circles" or states of mind -- in control, nervous, scared, terrified and panicked. The women are not to exceed their comfort zones, and proceed only if they can remain in the "first" circle. They will complete weekly readings on panic prevention and self-exploration.

Throughout the next eight weeks, the women will learn that Dash's sessions are not about learning strokes or becoming fast or even swimming the complete length of the pool.

"People think learning how to swim means knowing how to do freestyle and get from here to there," Dash says.

The sessions are lessons in control -- mastery over "fight or flight" -- and how the human body acts in water.

Dash sums up the class expectations with a mantra she echoes frequently throughout the next several weeks: "Don't do it unless it sounds like fun."

Mason kicks off her water shoes when the group heads to the pool. She quickly slides her waist into the water, but keeps her hand close to the metal railing.

"How is your heartbeat?" Dash asks.

"Mine's good so far," she replies.

The group walks the shallow width of the pool for more than an hour. Their feet feel the pool bottom, smooth and uneven. They feel the water depth change slightly.

Mason's eyes are open and her hands float gently below the surface. She does not get her face wet or venture to deeper water, as others do by the end of class.

"A baby doesn't know it can drown in three feet of water," she says, "but I do."

As she grew older, Mason says, avoiding opportunities to swim was not just about fear but about priorities. She didn't know how to swim, so she avoided the ocean. As she grew up, it seemed less important.

She realizes the foolishness of this now, of living on the Gulf with access to pools and the ocean and not knowing how to save herself or her 14 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren should they need help. There is a disconnect, she acknowledges, between her public efforts to bring swim lessons to local clubs and summer camps and her private aversion to water.

On the wall in her County Commission office -- across from the snapshot of her greeting President George W. Bush in Sarasota shortly before Sept. 11, 2001 -- is a framed picture given to her by the local Boys and Girls Club. It shows a smiling boy perched on pool steps with goggles on his head.

"To overcome fear is important because I have my grandchildren and this community that I live and work in and that I adore," Mason says. "I need to do my part."

Mason's inability to swim is partially rooted in a troublesome part of Sarasota history, where swimming opportunities skipped over generations.

Born in 1950, Mason grew up in segregated Sarasota. Blacks were not welcomed at Lido or Siesta key beaches and traveled to the "colored beach" near Venice to swim.

A Newtown Recreation Center pool, small and shallow, was built to quell the black community's desire for beach access, even though Sarasota voters had approved a $250,000 bond issue that would establish a local "Negro" beach, among other things.

Mason's older brother, an Army veteran, was a pool lifeguard here. She stayed far away from him, since he had a tendency to throw young kids in the deep end. Her younger brother took a sink-or-swim approach, learning to swim by jumping off the John Ringling Causeway.

Mason has spoken publicly about the disparity in swimming opportunities here.

In 2002, when she was mayor and Tropical Storm Gabrielle damaged the pool at the popular Lido Casino, citizens called for its renovation. Mason agreed, but added a sobering message.

"I wish that when we talk about the pool and the casino, that we don't say it was there for all of Sarasota, because my parents couldn't go there," she said then. "I just need to say that."

Today, 70 percent of African-American and 60 percent of Hispanic children cannot swim, according to national studies conducted by USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis. There is only a 13 percent chance that children will learn to swim if a parent does not swim, according to USA Swimming.

Dash sees these statistics translate into fear.

"Kids often pick up their parents' fear," Dash says.

A parent's avoidance or fear of water, not a personal traumatic experience, has been the No. 1 reason individuals are afraid of water in decades of classes, she says.

Neither of Mason's parents swam. She still sticks to the sand when she goes to the beach to collect shells.

. . .

Dash's classes are loose in structure, allowing swimmers to explore their own boundaries under her guidance. In Week 2 Mason tries to float while gripping the wall. She does not wear goggles, and her eyes scrunch into a tight wince.

"Carolyn, you don't have to use your eye muscles to keep your eyes closed," a lifeguard calls out.

Dash reproaches the guard.

"What are you doing?" she says. "We don't do that here. We don't tell people to relax."

Mason tunes them out.

"I think I'll get it in time," she says. But when she emerges from under the surface, her eyes are still shut tight.

Earlier, Dash made the class address beliefs about water.

Mason believes that if she puts her face and nose in the water, she may cough and sputter and possibly drown.

That the water is more powerful than she is.

That she cannot trust herself in water, and that if she relaxes, she could lose control.

That she'll drop to the bottom of the deep end like a stone.

To confront their beliefs, Dash has the women write conversations with the water, as well as the water's reply.

"I'm looking forward to a good healthy friendship with you," Mason writes to the water. "I'm looking to be one with you. No fear. But always respect."

"Take your time. Don't rush," the water replies. "I am looking forward to developing a good, healthy relationship with you, too."

. . .

It's Week 4 and Dash is in New York, teaching a class that includes an NBC sports broadcaster. Annie O'Connor, another Miracle Swimming instructor with a hearty laugh, takes control.

Class 4 is about permission. The women talk about when to push themselves, and what stops them from progressing. They talk about panic.

"Sometimes going backwards is going forward," O'Connor says. "We are going to be open, calm, cool, collected, grounded as we do this."

In the pool, Mason backtracks. Unlike last week, this time her legs won't rise to the surface when she grasps the wall and places her head in the water. Usually, she hangs close to Carrasco, but Carrasco left Mason for the deep end several classes ago. Today, Carrasco floats and kicks with others and her giggle echoes across the pool.

"I just tune them right out," Mason says. "It will be time for me to be down there. This is not it."

. . .

Carrasco tried traditional swim lessons for herself and her children. They were expensive, fast-paced and terrifying. She prayed the Miracle Swimming classes at Girls Inc. would be free.

This year U.S. Masters Swimming and its charitable arm, the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation, provided grants to help launch affordable, accessible swim lessons for adults nationwide.

Without such programs, cost remains a defining factor in who learns to swim. Local swim programs charge anywhere from $8.50 to $33 an hour, according to research conducted by Dash. Her own clients pay upwards of $1,100 to participate in her niche classes for fearful adults, though the Girls Inc. program was free to students thanks to donated funds.

This year, 11 swim programs across the country, including the Sarasota Swim Academy, received a total of $49,000 in grant money from the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation to host adult classes. The organization has also helped cover the cost of training two instructors for Miracle Swimming.

"The demand is growing," Butcher says. "Everyone has been so focused on teaching children."

In the classroom, Dash and her students explore other, more personal barriers that stall development and fuel fear.

Language barriers for the Latina women affect everyday life, not just securing swim lessons for themselves or their kids. Other traditions or cultural beliefs are exposed, too: A mother should stay out of the water to watch her children. A lady doesn't get her hair wet. Blacks can't swim.

Dash's school of panic prevention helps quash these beliefs and brings out a new confidence.

When Dash holds an additional class at the beach, Viridiana Tores' children watch from the sand as their once-timid mother floats in deep, choppy water over her head and proclaims:

"I'm floating, I'm floating. I'm in the deep. I'm in the deep!"

Another classmate wants to take English classes to help immigrants learn to navigate in a new country.

"If I can learn to swim, then I can do other things I want to do," Maribel Castillo says.

And there is the day Mason takes two grandsons to collect shells on Lido Beach.

When they half-heartedly ask to feel the water, she nods. Her one grandson, 8, cocks his head as if to say, "Really?"

Mason lets the boys sit on the shoreline as the tiny, choppy waves crash over them.

As long as they stay there, she does not worry that they will get into something she cannot get them out of.

"What would it look like if you jumped in the pool?" Dash asks Mason.

"I wouldn't be jumping in the pool," Mason says.

"Never say never," Dash says with a smile.

It's the last weekend for class, and Mason experiences a fluke -- Dash's name for an unexpected progress that can't always be quickly repeated. When her mind is unhurried and relaxed, Mason stretches her arms on the pool ledge and tilts her head back. Her feet rush up.

She does it again, away from the wall. Joy fills her face. A backfloat. A breakthrough. No hands.

"If I told my brother, he would look at me like 'Duh.' But he knows how to swim. He wouldn't get it. And if I told my daughter, who doesn't know how to swim, she'd also say she doesn't get it," Mason says. "So I'll just journal about it."

Dash is offering another eight-week class to a new group of women this fall, and invites Mason to continue with her. Mason has progressed, but she has yet to find peace in the deep.

"I'm completely free in the pool, and the deep end is still a mystery," Mason says.

Later, when Dash is helping others hold their breath underwater, Mason floats face down, slips her hands off the wall and floats away.

She is untethered, floating free, but completely in control.

Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.