Amanda DeVoe: From nearly drowning to overcoming decades-long fear of deep water

Red Cross says 54% of adults can’t swim well enough to save themselves. DeVoe is no longer one of them.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the leading cause of death for children ages 1 through 4 in the state of Florida.

Ten people drown each day nationwide.

Even more troubling, is the number of adults who can’t swim.

The Red Cross says 54% of adults can’t swim well enough to save themselves. I used to be part of that statistic, but now, I officially know how to swim.

My mission was to not only be able to swim but to overcome my fear of deep water after nearly drowning 19 years ago.

It took some time, but I finally reached my goal, and I hope it inspires others to face their fears as well.

After seven months of swim lessons, getting comfortable in the water and passing my midterm, it was time for me to take my final swim test.

You may remember, I started this journey back in July, after wanting to face my fears of getting back into the deep end following a near drowning when I was 12.

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YMCA Duval County Director of Aquatics Maureen Eaton helped me refine my skills to prepare for my test.

“You picked up where my previous instructor Shayne Meyers left off,” I said. “What do you think of where I am now?”

“I am super proud. You seem to swim with a lot more ease. To me, the comfort level that you have shown me in the past couple weeks is probably the most important to me,” she said.

Typically, the swim tests are geared for children, but since I never got the chance to complete my swim test nearly 20 years ago, I’m doing it now.

“You’re ready to do the green test. We’re going to swim all the way down, push off the wall, tread for 60 seconds, hop out. We’re going to jump back in, go under, hop back out and reach for the wall,” Eaton said.

I start by swimming a lap.

Eaton says treading is a vital skill in water safety.

She also says being able to move your limbs and stay afloat with your head above water is life-saving if you’re ever stuck in water out of your depth.

Then, it’s time to jump off the diving board into water that’s 6 feet, 8 inches and get out of the pool without using a ladder.

Eaton says this step is extremely important, in case you need to get to a wall to safety and you’re not near a ladder.

When kids pass the swim test at the Winston YMCA, they stand in front of a banner that tells them to ring the cowbell to be seen on Channel 4.

“Congratulations, you have now passed the YMCA green swim test,” she said. “Ring that bell! Great job, great job.”

The YMCA stresses how long it takes to learn how to swim depends on the person.

It doesn’t matter the age.

Eaton said she recently taught a 98-year-old woman how to swim.

They offer lessons year-round, and I encourage you to take that leap (or jump) like I did.

Going back to the deep end

Then, it was time for me to make good on a promise I set for myself at the start of my journey: getting in water at least 9 feet deep.

The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd has one of the deepest pools in the city that’s open year-round.

Pool director Carter Elliot says it opened in 1921 through a donation from philanthropist Ada Cummer. Her grandson drowned in the St. Johns River, and Elliot says Cummer wanted a safe space for children to learn to swim.

“The tagline here is: ‘The church that taught the city how to swim,’” he said. “We’re very proud of that tagline.”

Swim advocate Linda Bolger teaches lessons at the Good Shepherd and saw my first story.

Because of the trauma from my near drowning, she recommended that I get reacquainted with the deep end by first using a life jacket, which I did before taking my official jump.

“It’s a safety issue, and it’s a comfort issue,” she said.

Bolger uses this strategy with swimmers and non-swimmers.

“You still showed you still had a little bit of fear, the most appropriate thing would’ve been introducing you to the deep end with the life jacket. Jacket, jump, jacket, jump,” she said.

Fear of the deep water is not uncommon.

According to the CDC, a staggering 46% of adults fear the deep end of a pool, 32% are afraid to put their head underwater, and 46% are afraid of drowning.

Kandi Jackson, a licensed clinical social worker with Restoration and Counseling Family Services, said trauma can also affect people in their daily lives.

“You may find that someone that’s experienced a near drowning may have fears of water in general, or large bodies of water,” Jackson said. “Some people may have aversions to or difficulty crossing bridges because of the large body of water underneath it. It really kind of depends on how it impacts or affects that particular person.”

She said these fears can also be passed down through generations.

“If you as a parent had that near drowning experience, and you’re less likely to continue going to the pool, or continue going to large bodies of water, and you share those experiences with your children. Make comments, ‘Oh I’m scared of the water or no I don’t want to do that,’ it can develop a fear in them,” Jackson said.

She also said that there are ways people can overcome these fears.

“One of the big treatment modalities that may be helpful with someone who is trying to overcome a fear of water, is exposure therapy and that really is working with them progressively facing whatever that biggest fear is,” she said.

Now, I’m facing my fear of jumping into the deep end.

After a few deep breaths, I made the jump, a few times, in not 9 feet deep water, but 10.

I even swam a few laps, doing the freestyle and the backstroke — finishing what I started, all these years later.

Swim instructors stress how long it takes to learn how to swim depends on the person.

They say it tends to take a little longer though with people who have a fear of water.

You can click here to register for swim lessons at the YMCA and click here to take lessons with Linda Bolger and the FAST Swim Program.

About the Author:

Amanda DeVoe joined the News4JAX team in March 2022 as a morning news and traffic anchor