Island Scene Online

Taking the Plunge
It took awhile, but my preschooler finally enjoys swimming.

by Georgette Woo | Photography courtesy of Eric Woo

Danielle and I stand about eight feet apart, she on the steps of the pool, me just beyond the 4-foot marker. "Ready, set, go!" We dive into the water at the same time, our eyes focused on each other's as we meet underwater. Danielle's entire face is smiling, her eyes turned up at the corners, her teeth showing in a full grin even though she's holding her breath. Tiny air bubbles cling to the corners of her mouth. As I lift her under the arms and we come up for air, her face is pure, unabashed joy. "Let's do it again!" she says. What a pleasure. But eagerness is a hard-won treasure.

Danielle has loved the feel of the water since she was about 4 months old. And from that time on, I've been the designated diver. I'm no longer a swimmer; I'm a carrier and a mentor, guarding to ensure my daughter's experiences in the water are positive and safe.

So naturally, I got excited when I read about the work of Harvey Barnett, Ph.D., a former lifeguard who founded Infant Swimming Research, an organization that pioneered pool survival techniques for infants as young as 6 months old. ISR's Web site photos ( of happily swimming babies thoroughly intrigued me. Visions of my sugar plum floated in my head: Danielle, bobbing effortlessly to the surface like the pink buoy on a fishing line. Danielle, pumping tiny arms and legs while I swim proudly nearby. But instead of driving to Kailua to meet Honolulu's sole certified ISR instructor, I enrolled my 1-year-old in a parent-tot swimming class at the YWCA.

At the first class, parents and babies enter the pool at the invitation of a friendly young man with an innocent face and long sun-bleached hair. He introduces himself, then begins making the rounds, using cupped palms to dump pool water on the babies' heads, to "help them get used to the water." I'm sure this works great with some kids, but as the cold water streams down Danielle's face, she begins to cry. She continues through the entire half hour, the man returning now and then to douse her with baptismal vigor. Well, we think, perhaps the next class will go better.

It doesn't. It's a repeat; dousing and bawling, dousing and bawling. I wonder if he's hoping she'll get it through enlightenment. This time I ask him to stop, but Danielle cries through the rest of class anyway. We don't return after that, thinking we'll just put this bad experience behind us. Wrong!

For the next two years, Danielle cries -- loudly -- every time we wash her hair. A little water dribbling down her face or into her ears sends her into a panic. Bath time is now excruciating -- like listening to a really bad garage band -- and nothing seems to help. She still enjoys the pool, but only if she is wearing her "floaties," inflatable arm bands that keep her afloat and her head above water.

For her third birthday, we buy her what we call a "floaty suit," swimwear with floats sewn into the suit all around the torso. She looks like she's wearing a barrel, but her arms are free and she begins learning to paddle as well as kick. She gains a lot of confidence in the water and, after watching her friends put their faces in, she begins doing it, too. Hallelujah!

That's our cue. We enroll Danielle in swim classes at Leahi Swim School in Manoa, which has come highly recommended. As Danielle and I enter, I see there are lots of instructors, several for each small group. Danielle cries at her first class, but surprises her instructors by plunking her face right into the water. That's because she's not afraid of the water, I think. It's you she's worried about. I'm warmed by what I see next: This big, young, muscular instructor is gently comforting and reassuring her. They all call Danielle by name, keep everything light and fun, and swap high fives each time she follows directions.

Founder and director Lori Komer, who started the school in 1974, insists swimming lessons be fun. "The pool water should be warm," she says, "and the instructors should be warm and caring and loving. Sure, it's scary at first -- it's a big step from Mom to the pool -- but it's fun, too."

Komer, whose two sons are also Leahi instructors, advises parents to introduce their children to water early in life. Water adjustment classes are available for kids 6 months to 3 years old with regular swimming classes starting at 3 years. By then, she says, children are generally independent enough and ready to swim from point A to point B, but some learn to swim before that, too. The sooner the better.

"It's never too late to learn, but kids who start at age 6 or 7 are often awkward in the water," Komer says. "Younger kids have an innate sense of how to handle it."

Komer also says parents shouldn't be afraid to make protesting, resistant kids learn to swim. "Drowning is the leading cause of death for children under 4 years," she says. "And even when they can swim, they must be watched like hawks. Swimming lessons and a false sense of security don't cause drowning. Drowning occurs because of inattentive parents."

By her third class, Danielle floats confidently. At home, she can't wait to get into the pool. Her beloved floaty suit is now an object of disdain, "for babies," she says, selecting a pink-and-lavender number with a little ruffle. As we take the elevator down to the pool, she says matter-of-factly, "Uncle Josh is so funny." Who???? "Uncle Josh," she repeats, as if she's known this person all her life. "My instructor." Ooooooh, Uncle Josh. Of course. How quickly they change. And how long this change has been in coming.

Island Scene Online is not intended to replace the advice of health care professionals. Please consult your physician for your personal needs and before making any changes in your lifestyle. © 2004 Hawaii Medical Service Association An Independent Licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association. All Rights Reserved.