Nobody heard him, the dead man,  

But still he lay moaning:

I was much further out than you thought  

And not waving but drowning.

— Steve Smith, 1957

One of the things you realize when first learning how to swim is that almost no one really knows how to swim.

Sure, they could paddle back to the boat if they fell out or figure out a way to splash to the edge of the pool if they accidentally rolled off their inflatable raft, but really swim? At least I’m honest about it. I’ve never been able to float, let alone swim. This life skill most people take for granted always seemed like an impossibility … or a miracle.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. My brother, Pat, once tried to teach me in the pool at the West Plains, Missouri, Holiday Inn during one of our annual family vacations to visit my grandparents. Like all family vacations, the hotel was the best part because it meant vending machines, soda pop and the huge pool that the two-tier motor lodge had been built around.

While I was happily wading in the shallow end, Pat had seen enough and pulled me to deeper waters. “Kick your legs and paddle your arms, stupid,” he said, while doing his own modified dog paddle. I followed suit and managed to slowly motor to an area where I couldn’t touch bottom, and then, of course, panicked. Flailing my arms and legs, I quickly sunk to the bottom, only to have Pat grab me and pull me up, where, in my terror, I flail-chopped him in the head.

Pissed and holding his ear, he said: “My advice to you: Stay on dry land.” That was the end of the swimming lessons.

It’s not that I’m afraid of water. I enjoy it. I especially enjoy going underwater wearing swim goggles, as long as I can get air at some point. Even when swimming in the ocean, I will proudly dive into an oncoming wave … bravely knowing breathing merely requires standing up.

The real problem — I’ve convinced myself I can’t float and am quick to prove it to anyone by sitting Indian Style at the bottom of a pool. And though I might float back up, my head always inconveniently bobs just below the surface. As long as I stay in a boat or avoid the deep end, my lack of swimming skill has never been a problem, though whenever on vacation, I dream of being one of those guys who can body surf way out into the choppy stuff, out there where the big fish play.

It all changed when we bought our current house, which had a perfect back yard for a lap pool. This summer our pool finally opened — a 10 x 40 with a deep end of a safe five feet. I now had no excuse to not learn how to swim.

Really, how hard could it be, especially now with my own pool to practice in whenever I wanted? My first step — look up swimming videos on YouTube. After all, YouTube videos taught me how to fix the woofer of my broken stereo speaker and install a kick-stand on our 2004 Yamaha Scooter. You can learn almost anything by watching a two-minute YouTube video, right?

Sure enough, type “Adult Swim Lessons” into YouTube and you’ll get back 42,500 results, including a variety of step-by-step guides, most narrated by an Australian guy, with descriptions like, “Nigel helps an aquaphobic Oxfordshire lady become a relaxed and competent swimmer in two minutes.

Each video describes swimming more than it teaches it, ending after 90 seconds with, “Okay, mate, now push away from the wall and keep kicking,” or “Turn your head and breathe with every third stroke,” and concluding with “and now you’re swimming!” They always skip the part where the student is pulled down by his weight, about to lose consciousness, or the moment when the student breaks free to the surface coughing up lungs full of chlorinated water.

With summer waning, I searched for adult swim lessons. A number of swim academies around town offer private lessons, but the minimum class size is three. I couldn’t bear the idea of the other two swimmers impatiently watching me flounder and choke while they perfected their butterfly kicks. Finally I discovered that the YMCA in Papillion — a good nine miles away — offered one-on-one private lessons. I figured the half-hour drive would help me get my head in the game.

The first night I rolled into the parking lot a bit nervous. I checked into the Y on Facebook and posted: “First swim lesson.” There was a level of kind-yet-slightly-condescending acknowledgement from my Facebook friends as if instead of swimming I was learning how to read or how to eat using standard kitchen utensils. “You go, Tim.”

I walked to the edge of the pool in my flip-flops. Amber, my instructor, told me to go wait by the shallow end while she finished up her class. A small group of five-year-olds paddled in a line like baby ducks wearing tiny neon-colored swim goggles. They made it look so easy, splashing playfully in the deep end, laughing while the old guy waited nervously next to the pile of paddle boards and the group of women preparing for their water Zumba class.  

Turns out. I can swim. Sort of. Amber said my front stroke looked good. So did my breast stroke, which I didn’t know I was doing. One problem is that I can’t point my feet, so I look like a guy trying to swim wearing size 13 boots. Attempts at treading water were futile. Down I went.

The other problem is I can’t seem to figure out the whole breathing part of the exercise. I can swim five or six strokes until I have to stop, stand and catch my breath. Meanwhile, in the lane next to us, an older man probably in his late 60s swam lap after lap after lap, effortlessly turning his head every other stroke to take a breath.

Four lessons later and I still can’t swim, not really, but I could paddle back to a boat if I fell out or splash to the edge of a pool if I accidentally roll off an inflatable raft while floating over the deep end.

Maybe I’m finally a swimmer after all.

Over The Edge is a monthly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at

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