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Jumping right in: A swimmer at last
A novice finds success in the pool: I just swam
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Times intern Audrey Williams, who is learning to swim at age 23, dog paddles Thursday at Frances Meadows Aquatic Center in Gainesville, keeping her head above water with the help of a foam swim noodle. - photo by NAT GURLEY

Jumping right in

Times summer intern Audrey Williams never learned how to swim. She’s one of many adults who lack that skill, but thanks to some classes with the Red Cross this week and next, she’s learning how and sharing that experience in daily columns on and occasional columns in The Times.

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Until my adult swim lessons at the Frances Meadows Aquatic Center, there was no way I would go into a pool past my shoulders.

Pools, beaches, lakes — they all scared me.

Over the course of eight days, my swim lessons turned that fear into comfort.

My instructor, Max Sumner, eight years my junior, guided me along, one panic attack at a time.

“You need to relax,” he said. “Don’t think about what you can’t do. Think about what you can do.”

His calm and patient tone got me through learning how to float, how to hold my breath under water and how to breaststroke. For most of the lessons, I clung to a floatie, my safety net in the water.

By my last lesson, Sumner insisted I did not need it. I knew I’d made progress, but getting rid of my floatie was not something I was prepared to do.

“You’ve been swimming all along,” he said. “You don’t need it. You just think you do.”

I took my flotation noodle out from under my arms and followed his voice through the water.

“Move those hands,” he said. “Part the water. Kick bigger. Push the water away from you.”

The entire time I was kick-pushing, I was waiting for the moment I would sink, choking on water. It was my biggest fear and stopped me from swimming for the past 23 years.

But it never happened. I just swam.

My classmate, Cornelia Martin, Miss Cornelia as we called her, shared my fear.

“Sixty-one years I didn’t get in the water,” she said. “Now I don’t ever want to get out. I’m going to see about taking this class again.”

Miss Cornelia was my biggest cheerleader throughout the class, and on the last day we made plans to swim together again.

Before I left the pool for the last time, I asked Sumner if I should take more swim lessons.

“You’ve made amazing progress on your first class,” he said. “Imagine what you could do by your second class.”

He told me the key to my success was not because of technical skills, but because of the confidence I now had in the water.

“Now you can swim better than you could at the beginning,” he said. “You wouldn’t freak out if you went in the water.”

Losing control and panicking in the water is what leads to a lot of the accidents that occur during the summer, he said.

“The source of a lot of people drowning is them freaking out in the water,” he said. “When they freak out, they give up.”

If there was anything to take from the classes, he said, it would be to avoid that.

“Don’t give up,” he said. “Don’t give up and don’t freak out.”

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