In The Swim: Learning Lessons From The Waterfront (Insight)

I was raised on a farm in rural Saskatchewan. We didn’t take many family holidays – aside from the odd side trip to Manitou Lake. The mineral waters of Manitou are buoyant enough that you don’t really need any skill at all to bob happily around the lake.

This was good, because I grew up long before the days of community pools with summer swimming lessons. When I graduated from high school and arrived at University, I had no clue how to swim in fresh water.

In those days, all University students were required to take a year of Phys Ed activity classes. Six weeks of swimming lessons was a mandatory part of the program. Every graduate must be able to swim.

Now, I’ve never seen swimming as a requirement on any job posting (other than lifeguard), nor have I ever been asked about my swimming ability in a job interview. But there it was, the most advanced thinking at the time.

By the time I registered for my activity classes, the only available swim session ran from the beginning of January to mid February. The pool was located in the exact opposite corner of the campus from my regular classes.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever been in Saskatchewan in January or February, but our temperatures run as low as minus 30 and 40 degrees, and the wind chill makes it even more frigid. The idea of hustling across campus in mid winter with a still damp body and a dripping wet head literally left me cold. So, on the first day, when the swim instructor offered us a ‘get out of swim class early’ pass, I jumped at the chance.

Here was the deal. Dive in to the deep end of the pool – paddle across on your front, return on your back. If you successfully navigated two widths of the pool, you’d be given a pass and exempted from lessons.

It seemed like an excellent proposition. Still, I hesitated. The Terrified Pat reminded me that I could not swim a lick. I’d never jumped into the deep end of a freshwater pool in my life. I could drown right there, right then, and not even survive Frosh Swim class.

The Risk Taking Pat argued, here was a presumably competent swim instructor who could save me from drowning; and I really didn’t want to spend six weeks in the dead of winter traipsing across campus feeling like a human popsicle. In short, I was motivated.

So, I held my breath and jumped. I was the last one in, the last one across, the last one back, and the last one out. By the time I had gulped and thrashed my way across what seemed like an ocean – twice – I was physically and emotionally exhausted. When I neared the edge of the pool, the instructor mercifully extended a hand and pulled me out.

As I stood dripping wet on the pool deck, he stopped laughing long enough to tell me that I had just shown him the worst exhibition of swimming he had ever seen in his life. According to his assessment, I had no technique and no style whatsoever. However, he observed that I did have guts. And, he left it up to me as to whether I took the class or not. Needless to say, I grabbed the pass and ran.

I have since learned to swim – on my own time and in my own way. During my college summers, I worked at a summer camp – a place where swim skills definitely came in handy. Our lifeguard, Jim, gave daily diving lessons out on the raft. The action on the raft was much more exciting that the action on shore. So, since I had already established that I had nothing to lose, I thrashed my way out to the diving platform every afternoon. Learning to swim became an incidental byproduct of learning to dive.

A few years later, when I worked full time at the University, I started swimming lanes for exercise at lunchtime. The pool was a whole lot closer than it had been in my student days – so Popsicle hair was less of an issue. I also discovered that the lifeguards at the lunchtime faculty swim were bored out of their gourds. You’d die of boredom, too, watching this orderly procession of aging bodies swimming lanes – back and forth – back and forth. The guards, looking for a challenge, were more than willing to coach me in improving my strokes.

By the time I stopped working at the University, I was a pretty fair swimmer – and I’d never taken a formal swimming lesson in my life.

Here’s what I learned from my lifetime swimming adventures:

  • Learning on someone else’s schedule is not necessarily the best approach to skill development. An opportunity may present itself at just the wrong time; it may not fit with other things that are going on in your life.
  • Sometimes the best way to learn a new skill is simply to gather your courage and dive in.
  • Motivation (positive or negative) can be a powerful force. Use it to advantage.
  • Coaches are everywhere. Watch for them and invite them to give you a hand. Many people are glad to mentor others, even when it’s not part of their prescribed job description.
  • You can advance your skills and learn from others in bits and bites. Not all learning requires an approved, formal curriculum, step-by-step advancement, or an accredited instructor.

© Patricia Katz MCE CHRP of Optimus Consulting is a speaker, author and consultant who helps individuals and organizations restore the rhythm of renewal to work and life. To bring Patricia’s expertise to your organization, contact her at or toll free at (877) 728-5289