My daughter learned to swim while screaming.
My son was fearless in the water. When Elliott was two, I’d start ripping my clothes off as we headed to the pool because I knew as soon as we’d get there, he’d fling himself into the water and sink to the bottom like it was nothing and wait happily until I pulled him up. I swear he had gills.
Evie, on the other hand, was terrified of this uncontrollable entity. Water moved without her permission. It splashed her in the face and got in her eyes. She wasn’t just scared of the water. She was angry at it.
After an entire summer of nonstop howling on the side of the community pool, the following spring I signed her up for lessons at our local Dive Center. We had to punch through the fear before spending another year torturing our neighbors.
During her first swimming lesson she sat on the steps and raged as the other kids splashed around her. She fought the pool, shrieking louder and louder. The other moms and dads tried not to look at me and I fought the urge to pull her out. She had to learn to swim for her own safety, and the earlier the better. We had to overcome this. I wondered if I should bring earplugs for the other parents.
When the lesson was over and everybody got out to towel off, the instructor held my mad-scared girl gently and securely on her back in the middle of the pool and whispered calmly into her ear, “You cannot scream through my class anymore. You’re safe, you’re going to be a great swimmer, and you will learn to love the water.” Evie’s eyes darted back and forth like a trapped animal. A land mammal with no inclination for water-related activities.
But the instructor was patient and Evie was brave. She stared up at the ceiling and felt the water surrounding her body, supporting it. She relaxed her fists. The screaming slowly ebbed and she let her breathing go in and out. The instructor released her hands. Evie floated.
A couple years later, when she was only six, she jumped in the pool with the older kids determined to earn her way onto our neighborhood swim team’s 100 Lap Club. Every year the coach challenges the kids to swim 100 laps in a row, for the glory of their name written on a big whiteboard and a bright green 100 Lap Club cup at the year-end banquet.
I thought she’d do 20. She kept going. I thought maybe she’d make 40. She kept at it. At 60, she was ready to quit and asked if she could still be in the club. I said, “No, you have to swim 100 laps to be in the 100 Lap Club, but 60 is great and I’m proud of you.” She got back in that pool and kept going. At 80, she broke down crying and the older kids around her began doing the laps with her. She kept swimming, and now I was crying. At 90, they gathered around and cheered her on. I started singing the theme song from Rocky. And when she swam that 100th lap, everyone lost it. The coach wrote her name on the big board and Evie looked at us like, “Whatever. No big deal.” That terrified girl who screamed bloody murder through her first swim lesson did it scared and became a champion. The following year, some of her friends challenged themselves to do it because Evie showed them it was possible.
As a grownup, I’ve taken a page out of Evie’s book more than once. I don’t wait to conquer my fear before I start. I just do it scared and trust that the fear will get out of the way. The first time I got asked to speak publicly, I was terrified. I walked trembling out onto that stage, told my story in front of the crowd, and broke out into hives across my chest. I kept talking. The hives didn’t go away, but neither did I. The second time, the hives came back, big, red blotches. The third time I learned to wear a scarf. Time after time I draped scarves and big necklaces across my chest to hide the hives that covered my chest and neck. No matter how calm I acted on the outside, my skin gave me away.
I ended up with a fabulous scarf collection. Then last year, after giving countless talks and interviews, I realized I didn’t need them anymore. The hives were gone. The fear realized I was going to keep getting up in front of people and it finally got out of the way.
We all have something we need to do that freaks us out. But maybe the trick is just to do it scared and trust the fear will settle down eventually. Our feelings aren’t the boss of us.
Sometimes the only way to master the fear is to walk straight into it and invite it along. Hi Fear. I feel you. Let’s swim together and maybe later you can hop out and go bother somebody else.
Photo by Jennifer Batchelor