Diving in: Students in beginning swim class learn more than the backstroke

Students who never learned to swim are gaining confidence and relieving stress in level 1 swim class—as well as opening themselves up to new possibilities such as surfing and scuba diving

Podcast: Hear the splashes and sounds of the OPERS pool as students talk about their experiences in level 1 swim class. Interviews by student podcast intern Loukas Stelyn; editing and production by J.D. Hillard.
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Victoria Yun (Merrill ’17, business management/economics) signed up for a beginning swim class because she was determined to learn to surf; Azzam Qureshi, a graduate student in electrical engineering, also wants to surf, as well as swim in the ocean he can see from campus. 

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The class learns the proper swim kick. 

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Kat Douglas, a theater arts major from Oakes College, says swimming “is a reminder that effort and willpower can get you a lot of places."

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“When people work with their own fears, they realize anything is possible,” says swim instructor Julie Kimball (Crown '78, German literature). (Photos by Carolyn Lagattuta)

Params Raman, 31, churned through the water at UC Santa Cruz’s Olympic-sized pool on a recent spring day, a feat that was, at once, both ordinary and extraordinary.

Only a month earlier, Raman, a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz who is doing research in artificial intelligence, was terrified of the water. He’d grown up in the northeastern and southern parts of India where, he said, there was no access to swimming pools—only dangerous wild rivers and dark cistern-like wells. 

But under the watchful eye of UC Santa Cruz yoga and swimming instructor Julie Kimball, Raman was stroking and kicking his way across a wide pool lane along with eight of his classmates.

“I feel like learning to swim opens up your world to so many other things you can do,” said Raman, who wants to learn to surf, snorkel, and scuba dive once he’s mastered swimming. “It helps you boost your confidence and also relaxes you when you need a break from your studies.”

It’s what Kimball likes best about teaching non-swimmers how to swim: the Zen idea that in the beginner’s mind there are lots of possibilities.

“When people work with their own fears, they realize anything is possible,” said Kimball, who graduated from Crown College with a degree in German literature in 1978.

Taking the plunge

The one-hour beginning swim classes, offered through UC Santa Cruz’s Office of Physical Education, Recreation and Sports, meet twice a week for 10 weeks. Some 40–50 students take the level I class each year, but a long waiting list means others are turned away. Students come from across the country and around the globe.

For Victoria Yun (Merrill ’17, business management/economics), who grew up far away from the ocean in Inner Mongolia in China, the idea of running out of air and staying afloat in a body of water was scary. But, determined to learn to surf, she signed up for a beginning swim class and felt the stirrings of confidence as she learned to float and put her face in the water.

“I feel like Julie never rushes me,” she said.

According to Kimball, the first lessons focus on water safety: how to bounce and scull through the water, how to blow bubbles.

“It’s about keeping your five senses open and not freezing up,” Kimball said of the first hours in the pool. “We do a lot of listening under water and looking under water. And, we always do it with partners. I find that students learn best when they learn from each other.”

From there, teaching moves into lessons on buoyancy and on using arms and legs to propel the swimmer through the water. Kimball, who has been teaching swimming at UC Santa Cruz since the 1980s when lessons were conducted in a small pool near Cowell College, is all about encouragement, collaboration, and using metaphors as teaching tools.

Deep breath

Clinging to the edge of the pool, a beginning class of nine students listened as Kimball told them to think of their legs as blades in a blender whirling up a nice smoothie. “You want to chop the fruit with your feet, not with your knees,” she said, sparking a round of competent kicking. Soon, the students were propelling themselves across the pool, their legs chopping the water: tha-wunk, tha-wunk.

“Trust is so important because if they don’t trust me, if they don’t trust the lifeguards, then it (learning to swim) is not going to happen,” Kimball said.

Some of that trust includes students opening themselves up to Kimball and to the experience of being in the water, as happened for a young pre-med student named Tahrier Sub Laban. Sub Laban wanted to learn how to swim but was worried she wouldn’t be allowed in the pool with the traditional Muslim clothing she wore that covered all but her face, hands, and feet, Kimball said.

Kimball assured Sub Laban that she was welcome to join the class and not only modified the strokes she taught the young woman so she could swim in 10 pounds of wet clothing without swallowing water but later emailed an online site that sold swimwear for Muslim women and got a prototype suit that allowed Sub Laban to swim both the crawl and the backstroke without struggling.

“I think we need to exercise courage every day,” said Kimball, who added that confidence is often a byproduct of learning to swim as is the chance to get away from the cerebral demands of college.

“I have to remind myself to focus on my body and get out of my head,” said Henry Kerr (Kresge ’18, sociology), who said learning to swim was a goal for him. “It’s good to think about your body in a different way."

“When your head is under the water, you are isolated from the world and what is going on outside. You can think,” said Azzam Qureshi, a 28-year-old graduate student in electrical engineering, who was driven to the beginner’s class not only because he wanted to swim in the ocean he could see from the hilltop campus but also because he wanted to surf and scuba dive.

Growing up in Pakistan, he said, there weren’t a lot of water sports and swimming just “never clicked.” But Kimball, he said, taught him about slowing down, about being persistent and being aware of what his body was doing. The experience also allowed him to appreciate the serenity of water.

Just add water

As the day’s lesson drew to a close, a wetsuited Kimball told her beginning students not to fight “but to feel the water.” She urged them to relax and showed them how to catch a breath while they kicked across a short stretch of open water.

“Lift your chest and back body,” she called out. “Pop up like a ground squirrel.”

Kat Douglas, a theater arts major from Oakes College who said she grew up in Chicago without a lot of access to pools, followed Kimball’s instructions, propelling herself forward just as Kimball explained.

Learning to swim, she said later, “is a reminder that effort and willpower can get you a lot of places. Especially when the opportunity is provided.”