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I decided that I needed to learn how to swim when I was in Cambodia. “I really want to go do something off the beaten path,” said the friend I was traveling with. “Rock climbing. Hiking.”

“It says here,” I said, “that we are in the most heavily landmined country in the world. See?” I opened the guidebook to a special section with a bold heading that read “Stay on the path!”

“Well then,” she said. “We’ll go to the beach. We’ll go swimming.”

“Well,” I said, “I suppose I could learn.”

She got a pained, faintly gassy expression. “You don’t know how to swim.”

“I will learn,” I said with more confidence than I felt. “I will learn the same way that I learned how to cut a mango. Which is to say that I will learn through watching YouTube videos.”

“You,” she said, “are going nowhere near the ocean.”

As it turns out, it is very, very difficult to teach yourself how to swim by watching YouTube. Especially in a  country with slow Internet connections. And that is the story of how I found myself back in San Francisco, holding onto the side of the pool, and pulling myself underwater over and over and over again.

Class One

At many points in my life, people have tried to teach me how to swim. This process has always followed a certain pattern.

“First,” they would say, “we will start with the float. Lay on your back in the water. And just relax and float.”

I would lay on my back in the water. And then I would sink.

So it’s nice that the public swim classes at Garfield pool start with being underwater, rather than trying to stay above it. I’m here, rather than at the pool that was most recommended to me by my swimmer friends (UCSF Mission Bay — reportedly perfect, new, clean) because I became completely charmed by Garfield pool when I was hanging out there as research for an article. Also: Adult swim classes at UCSF are over $100. At Garfield, five classes are $35.

The class is all levels, which means that it is me, who still has trouble putting her face in the water without reflexively trying to breathe, a guy training for a triathlon, a woman who is trying to learn a few more strokes, and a guy who says “This is HARD!” every time he’s asked to do something. It quickly becomes apparent that everyone is a better swimmer than I am.

Sticking  my head underwater is surprisingly relaxing. From underneath, everything is turquoise, and the senior swim group at the other end of the pool looks like a herd of adorable manatees. On the bottom of the pool, I find a pair of goggles and a hair barrette.

Class Two

My assignment: I clutch a foam board about the size of high school textbook and furiously kick from one side of the shallow end to the other. The goal is to learn how to pull up my head to breathe appropriately, so that once I start swimming for real everything will fall into place.

Every time I pull my head out of the water to breathe, I can hear the other student saying “This is HARD!” It is hard, I am beginning to feel. My nose is full of chlorine. Water is a mysterious object — hard to move through, and not especially interested in holding me up, either. The triathlete is gone. The other woman is backstroking in the deep end in what looks like silent perfection. I decide that I do not like her very much.

Class Three

I am accustomed to obsessively investigating things via the Internet, to determine what is The Best. But there is no way of knowing who’s going to be your swim instructor at the public pool. This turns out to be surprisingly OK. Each lifeguard has their own theory on swimming that, put together, begins to describe the large, impossible thing that is moving through the water without drowning.

“You can worry about breathing later,” says Alex, the fill-in. She is covered in interesting tattoos. On her forearm there’s an image of a diamond with the words “Girl’s Best Friend” tattooed underneath it in cursive.

“Just push off from the side of the pool, and remember to stay straight,” says Alex. Once you’ve got good momentum, and good form, everything else is like butter.

I put my arms over my head and push off from the side of the pool. It feels amazing. Like water is something that has actual substance that I can actually move through.

“You’re doing something weird with your feet,” Alex says. “Like you’re almost trying to pedal a bicycle while you’re kicking. When you’re kicking, kick like…like….

“Like your feet are covered in peanut butter! And you’re trying to flick it off while you’re swimming!” yells the on-duty lifeguard from her chair.

“Yeah,” says Alex. “That.”

Class Four

There’s still another instructor. It turns out that I’ve been breathing wrong — that I should be holding my breath and coming out of the water on the exhale, rather than exhaling right away underwater and coming up when I think that I am about to die.

The instructor has a low, kind voice, and addresses everyone in the slow tones that one would use to address an overly excitable kindergartener. It would seem slightly condescending if it weren’t so flattering to be told that I am working VERY HARD and have MADE SOME PROGRESS TODAY.

Coming out of the water on the exhale has eliminated most, though not all, of the chlorine-up-the-nose phenomenon that has led to spending the rest of the day after swim class feeling like there is a public pool inside my head.

Class Five

I remember the lifeguards of my hometown as a spookily oiled and tanned species, drawn to the job because it provided more opportunities to burnish to a golden tan than the average summer gig at the Dairy Queen. Here, even when lifeguards are young, they’re geeky, breaking down the mechanics of swimming like the components of a particularly complicated math problem.

I’ve signed up for another round of classes. Today I pushed off from the side of the pool and, once I lost momentum, realized with great excitement that I was not sinking to the bottom. I floated there, arms spread, and looked down. I looked at the bumps on the bottom of the pool, like a tiny mountain range. I looked at a long strand of hair gliding along the bottom, like a jellyfish on a mission. I was filled with elation. Not sinking felt miraculous. As it turned out, all I needed to do to learn how to swim was to learn how to float first.

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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  1. The jellyfish comment is especially funny. Earlier this year, my wife and I were stung multiple times over a 5 minute period by little jellyfish in water near Sihanoukville (in Cambodia).

  2. Mission District Filipina Victoria Manalo Draves, who learned how to swim and dive in a local pool, went on to capture two gold medals at the 1948 Olympics. She has a Wiki that you can read online. Sadly, she passed away several months ago at the age of 85.

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