How I conquered the pool at age 37

A recent study from Northwestern University found that “less than 4% of white parents reported never learning to swim, compared to 26% of Black parents and over 32% of Latino parents.” (Dreamstime/TNS)

The calendar may have flipped to autumn, but I’m still clinging to my summer’s crowning achievement: At the tender age of 37, I finally learned how to swim freestyle.

Which raises the question: What took so darn long?


I’m painting with a broad brush here, but like many children from non-white households (I’m half-Japanese, half-Polish), learning to swim was simply not a priority. A recent study from Northwestern University found that “less than 4% of white parents reported never learning to swim, compared to 26% of Black parents and over 32% of Latino parents.”

This disparity has significant downstream effects, as “children are less likely to swim when their parents can’t swim.” Count me among that group — my mom, who is from Japan, never learned how to swim. I should mention here that she did graciously shuttle me to countless soccer, basketball and baseball games throughout my youth. And she made sure I had at least the occasional swim lesson, which meant I could tread a bit of water and splash my way across the pool.

My lack of prowess in the pool didn’t really bite until my freshmen year of college at Notre Dame, when, to my horror, I learned that the university issues a swim test to all freshmen. Imagine hanging out in Speedos with 200 of your new co-ed peers. Then imagine failing the test in front of them. That was me.

The remedy was mandatory swim class. Joining me were football players who sunk like weights and those who had likely never lifted one — think Jeopardy meets jocks on kickboards. I didn’t learn how to swim freestyle.

That sad state of affairs held for nearly 20 more years.

What changed? As a family, we’ve spent much of the past two summers at the pool. Seeing all those kids zip across the lanes while I sat bobbing in the water made me painfully aware of my ineptitude. One day, while watching my 6-year-old’s rapid progress during swim lessons, something in me snapped: I determined that I could, I would, I must learn how to swim freestyle, correctly.

After splashing around futilely for a couple of weeks, I enlisted the help of the swim coach. This required some pride swallowing: She was at least 15 years my junior, but at times steely determination can require the embrace of embarrassment.

Two drills; they were the turning point. After a few days, I made it across the pool — 25 meters. A week later, 50 meters. I worked my way up to 10 laps, then 15, then 20.

What did I learn during my summer of swim?

Swimming is hard, but it can also be quite pleasant. Unlike running, which treats your knees like jackhammers, swimming exhausts every part of your body, from your lungs to your toes, in the best way possible. At an outdoor pool, the breeze ripples the surface, the sun shines on your shoulders, and trees sway and birds streak across the sky as you come up for air. It beats doing dumbbell curls in a musty gym.

Also, your mid-30s are an opportune time to learn something new. You’ve likely already reinvented yourself as a parent, spouse, uncle or aunt, son or daughter. Might as well continue the transformation.

Always wanted to learn an instrument? Start a beginner piano book. Trying to get in shape? A 10k is reasonable. Never done an Iron Man? Let’s not get crazy.

Through swimming, I relearned the satisfaction that comes from setting a new goal and seeing it through to completion. It was refreshing, renewing, invigorating, a useful counter to my mid-30s chore cycle — lunch-packing, carpool lanes, soccer practice, groceries, dishes, laundry. All of which are important and necessary, but they’re not exactly the spice of life.

On my last swim of the season, I received one of the most gratifying compliments of my life. A lifeguard noted that my breaststroke, which I’d thought was poetry in motion, was “illegal,” but then, almost as an afterthought, uttered the following three words: “Freestyle looks good.”

Freestyle looks good. After 37 years, freestyle looks good.