I nearly drowned as a child. Here’s how I beat my fear of swimming

I am the only Black person in my class, which isn’t surprising to me at all (Picture: Jackie Adedeji)

‘Someone help me, I’m going to die!’ I screamed.

When I was nine years old, my friend and I were in our friend’s pool at her birthday party — I was always a decent swimmer from the mandatory lessons we were given in school. A friend at the time couldn’t swim, so I offered to give her a piggyback in the water.

But as I started edging towards the deep end, she panicked and pushed my head under water, trying to jump out. I flapped around as I couldn’t breathe. I started screaming and then realised nobody could hear me because water was filling my mouth. 

I felt my throat closing up, and then everything went black. I was drowning.

I was brought back to life with CPR by my friend’s dad. The only thing I remember is waking up and seeing him and my friends’ worried faces peering down at me.

After I woke up vomiting water and shaking, I looked to the pool and felt a strong sense of fear for the first time in my life.

After that, I was terrified of water. I kept getting vivid flashbacks to water filling my mouth and not being able to scream, and would completely freeze up.

I remember my dad telling me as an adult once I’d passed my driving test, that if you ever have a car accident, the best thing to do is get into a car the next day so you don’t get scared to enter a car again.

When it came to swimming, I wasn’t given the same advice.

My parents were pretty terrified but I think they brushed the incident off under the assumption it was ‘children just messing about’.

As I grew up, whenever anybody invited me for a swim, my stomach would tie into knots. Yet, I didn’t want to be a bore or be laughed at, so I’d get into the water and tip toe slowly down the pool until the water got deeper and deeper.

I’d feel terrified and scan for the lifeguard, convinced I was going to drown again. 

I cheated death once, the next time I wouldn’t be so lucky (Picture: Amelia Allen)

I’d come out of the water and have full blown panic attacks out of the sight of my friends, as I was so ashamed and embarrassed.

I vividly remember trips abroad with friends, too, particularly when I was 19 and we all went to Zante on a booze cruise. Everybody started somersaulting into the water from the boat and all my friends were shouting: ‘You coming?’

I’d disguise my shame and embarrassment of not jumping into the ocean with them by channeling my inner Carrie Bradshaw, waving them away and sipping cocktails while I shook with fear.

It was all fake bravado to disguise my lack of confidence around water and my innate fear. I convinced myself that, this time, I was going to die in the water. I had cheated death once, the next time I wouldn’t be so lucky.

Whenever I went on family holidays I became the ‘boring’ one who would always sit in the baby paddling pool and shout at my little sister that she was swimming too far into the deep end.

My sisters knew of my experience. Even when they’d ask me to come into the main swimming pool and promise they wouldn’t allow me to drown, I would run away.

I even started thinking about what will happen when I eventually have children. Am I an incapable parent if I can’t teach my children a life skill that could ultimately save their life? What if my children and my husband swim off into the sunset, what on earth will I be doing? Trying to haggle a knock-off Christian Dior bag on the beach?

Fear paralysed me for decades but I didn’t want to live in fear anymore. I hated knowing that something had so much control over me, and my life, and fear stopped me living out my wildest dreams. 

I could swim, so why couldn’t I do it again? I told myself for years that I was going to sign up to my local leisure centre to do swimming lessons, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Eventually, at 27, I signed up not to do swimming lessons, but aqua aerobics. I have always loved exercise and I wanted to throw myself in a new adventure. Maybe if I can learn to trust the water without swimming lessons, then I would feel more empowered to push myself to learn again.

I decided that I was going to work out in water. 

Aqua aerobics is usually recommended by doctors to elderly patients to help prevent falls, and increase their general health and speed. It’s no surprise at 27 that I was the youngest person in the class.

It had been a long time since I smelt chlorine, and done that brisk walk we all do to the pool feeling really bare with the sound of the squelching flip flops.

As I was changing, I felt like there was no going back. Was I really going to do this? I knew that I made a commitment to myself so I couldn’t just get up and leave.

The first day I started, I felt nervous and giggly as I hurried into the pool and thought: ‘At least if I die, I had a good run!’

Before I got in the water I explained my own journey with water to a 70-year-old class member, and she told me she went to the class after her hip replacement surgery. ‘This is low impact, but it’s hard work,’ she said. ‘I hope you can keep up!’ she winked, laughing.

She was right!

The classes are very intense (Picture: Jackie Adedeji)

We started doing intense hand motions in the water and the instructor was shouting: ‘Harder, faster!’ We then started moving around towards the deep end. I could feel the floor and then, within moments, I couldn’t. I was swallowing lots of water and anxiety struck. I felt like I couldn’t move my legs. 

When they say ‘where the mind will go, the body will travel’, it’s true. I thought to myself: ‘Don’t run from the water, let it carry you.’

I got my bearings, took a deep breath and found myself gently gliding to the corner of the pool, trusting that the water would keep me afloat, and it did. I really felt like my younger self would have been so proud of me. 

I go twice a week, and I absolutely love it. I feel like me and water are friends now – I mean, I am an Aquarius (a water baby by birth) so it was only a matter of time right?

The classes are very intense, and quite often I am told to go ‘harder’ and ‘faster’ whilst carrying weights in the water and running (which is very hard!) It encourages me to keep pushing myself.

It’s so refreshing to see all these amazing women smashing it when I look around my class.

I haven’t gone swimming on my own yet, but I will get there. This has been about pushing myself to the limit. It isn’t always about the destination but the journey — so far I am loving the journey.

It’s also important for me to mention how race impacts not only my own experience of water, but many other Black people living in the UK, too.

According to Swim England, 95% of Black adults and 80% of Black children in England do not swim, and only 1% of registered swimmers with the organisation’s governing body are Black, or mixed race. 

I am the only Black person in my class, which isn’t surprising to me at all because less than 2% of regular swimmers in England are Black.

There are many cultural barriers when it comes to swimming while Black — dry skin is one but hair also plays a massive part. Chlorine can be incredibly damaging to Black hair, with standard swimming caps not well-suited or made for Black hair either. 

After the Summer Olympics this year in Tokyo – where FINA (the federation for international competitions in water sports) rejected an inclusive swimming cap brand – the exclusion many Black people feel with water is systemic. 

I won’t let that stop me though. If it was easy, then everybody would do it, right? I definitely want to prove to myself and be the representation in the water for other Black, Asian and minority ethnic people that we can beat our fear of water and have just as much fun as everybody else!

Aqua aerobics isn’t just for older folks, it’s an inclusive sport where everyone —no matter what your experience — is welcome.

I just wish I’d found it sooner and wasn’t living in fear of the water for so long.

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