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Learning to Swim at 80

Posted on 
October 26, 2021

Written by Louise Jackson for Next Avenue

Every Thursday night, I drive to the gym, wriggle into a swimsuit that does nothing to hide my bulging belly or my wrinkled, sagging underarms, put on swim goggles that make me look a bit like someone from outer space, grab my cane to help keep my balance while walking from the dressing room into the pool area and slowly ease down the steps into water smelling of chlorine.

I’m 80 years old and taking a swim class for the first time in my life.

How Do You Go Eight Decades Without Learning to Swim?

You’d think, given the description of my general appearance in one of today’s swimsuits, I’d be embarrassed to be seen at the pool. And I did think about that beforehand, but I looked around the women’s dressing room one day and realized I was in good company. People’s bodies come in all sizes and shapes and using my appearance as an excuse for opting out of an activity I really wanted to try seemed self-defeating. So, in spite of my misgivings, I paid the class fee.

If you grew up near a lake or a town with a swimming pool, or your parents swam, it may surprise you to learn I’ve never taken swimming lessons. But I grew up on a small ranch in Central Texas during an extreme, extended drought and all the swimming holes became wading pools.

Further, the cause of polio was yet unknown. We looked with fear at Life magazine photos showing long rows of children in iron lungs, unable to breathe on their own. The media warned parents about exposing their children to large groups in strange situations. Driving 20 miles each way, just so a child could learn to swim, was never even considered.

Better Late Than Never

After I became an adult, I watched with envy as others swam. I eventually taught myself to float and even to swim, after a fashion, but always wanted to do more, to be better. Finally, when my gym decided to offer adult swim lessons, I reminded myself of the old adage, “Better late than never,” and have just completed half the eight-week course.

To my surprise, even though I’m the oldest person in the class, I haven’t felt the least bit awkward and I’m doing pretty well in spite of some breathlessness due to A-fib. Everyone else has to struggle, too. We’re there because we want to learn to swim or swim more skillfully. It’s a new and demanding experience for each of us.

I’ve made friends with all sorts of people — young men who grew up in deserts, moms who want to swim with their children and a few younger seniors who, like me, hope to stay healthy as long as possible. One young woman even told me, “I want to be like you when I grow up!” (I think several bulges may have shrunk a bit on hearing those words!)

Feeling Sore — But It’s Worth It

One caveat if you’re thinking of following my lead: You may feel stiff and sore after the first several classes. That could be true even if, like me, you’re no stranger to gentle exercising like walking or Tai chi. Swimming demands the use of muscles in totally different ways.

Still, take heart. The aches don’t last and each session feels less demanding, as you build endurance.  

For me, the water is no longer an awkward environment. My balance, slightly impaired by a small stroke, isn’t a problem in the pool. I look forward to learning new skills and getting better at the ones I’ve already learned.

Last week, we began the breast stroke. It used my leg muscles in different ways than the freestyle, and I’m stiff again. But that’s OK. It feels good to think I’m getting stronger and more supple with each new activity.

I figure, if you’re lucky, you get older. But aging doesn’t mean you should stop learning and staying in shape. Swimming is fun! I’ve already signed up for another eight lessons, beginning in the new year. It’s my Christmas present to myself.


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