Help me learn how to swim. No, scratch that; help me learn how to learn how to swim.
I am a male in my early 20s. I run daily and would hazard the opinion that I am reasonably fit. However, I cannot swim.
There's something odd about that statement: when most people hear it, they think that what I mean is, "I cannot swim very well", and they respond by saying, "Oh, but you can doggy-paddle, right?" or "So you can only swim with a noodle?" or similar. No. I mean that I cannot swim. I mean that if I was dropped into ten feet of calm water, fifty feet from shore, I do not know whether I would survive.
The full extent of my abilities are these: I can float on my stomach for as long as I can hold m breath, and if I have a life jacket on, I can slowly propel myself around with my arms and legs. I feel that calling these feats "swimming" would be excessively generous.
I'm not looking for advice on technique, because I think I have enough of that on hand: my wife and all of my family are good swimmers. I have a book and a DVD on the subject. I've taken basic swimming classes three times (admittedly, many years ago).
What I need is advice on simply being in the water in the first place - advice so basic that nearly everyone I ask has difficulty discerning and articulating it. I also need guidance on how to overcome or get rid of the many counterproductive instincts of a body which does not consider the water a natural or safe environment.
Let me outline the basic difficulties I face in the water:
1. While attempting to practice swimming, I frequently do something which my body finds unnatural and provokes a brief panic response, including gasping and trying to regain balance. The gasping in particular is troublesome. I am reluctant to try certain techniques because experience tells me that the probability of hitting a panic response, gasping, and inhaling water, is very high.
(I want to note that the panic response I'm talking about is muscular, not emotional - I am not afraid of the water.)
2. I do not know what to do with my breath. When my face is underwater, should I be exhaling through my mouth, exhaling through my nose, holding my breath, or some combination? When above water, should I inhale through my mouth or nose? If through my mouth, should I use the muscle in the back of my mouth to block up my nasal passageway? I've tried every strategy I can think of, but none strike me as obviously the most natural. If I try to keep my nasal passageway closed, it seems that eventually water pressure forces water through it anyway; and if I don't, for instance if I'm exhaling through my nose, at some point I'll slip up or hit a panic response and, again, inhale water.
3. If I attempt to float on my back (the first part of many techniques), my ears dip under the water, water enters them, and they hurt (once again, triggering a panic response). I have tried to overcome this by attempting the back float many times in succession, until my ears seem to accept the feeling of water in them - but then when I change position, I find that my head feels odd (strangely hot or cold) and my balance is negatively impacted for a minute or more. This does not seem like something I ought to encourage.
(Note that water does not bother my ears if I am underwater with my head pointed straight forward or down. It is when I look up, or turn my head to one side, that I have this problem.)
4. Water hurts my eyes. Even a small amount of water in my eye makes it almost impossible for me to open it. This applies to pool water, lake water, even the shower - I have to close my eyes when I wash my head, and keep them closed until I dry my eyes. I have tried to overcome this by repeatedly putting small amounts of lukewarm clean water in my open eyes, to improve my endurance, but I have not noticed any success.
(Note that this is the least important of my difficulties, as I can generally obviate it by simply wearing goggles. I include it mostly to illustrate how negatively my body reacts to water. I am also curious whether anyone else shares my experience.)
I have gone so much of my life not being able to swim that I have come to see it as very much a part of my identity. However, I cannot ignore how gross an oversight it is in terms of physical fitness and disaster preparedness. As a father, I would like to have the ability to pull my child from the water, if I ever had to.
Also, this swimming business - it does look rather fun.