Health & Fitness

Taking the plunge

Robert Samuels, Miami Herald Reporter, practices kicking his feet in water while Juan Alvarez holds his board for stability during the Beginner Adult Swim Class at Miami-Dade College Kendall Campus.
Robert Samuels, Miami Herald Reporter, practices kicking his feet in water while Juan Alvarez holds his board for stability during the Beginner Adult Swim Class at Miami-Dade College Kendall Campus. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

I am standing practically naked in a chest-high den of chlorine, staring at this charlatan swim instructor at Miami Dade College’s Kendall campus.

Seven other skeptical people are around me, as well as one woman who refuses to take a dip because five feet of water is way too dangerous. All of us are over 18 -- jobs, kids, grandchildren -- and we have all recently accepted that our inability to swim was decidedly un-Floridian.

We have imagined ourselves as the next Dana Torres or Michael Phelps, but first the instructor has to convince us that a simple act will keep us from drowning.

Look down, she says, and surrender to the water. When the instructor takes my hand, I resist. It all seemed too mystic to be true.

The drive to campus is about 40 minutes from my home, but this a journey that has taken almost a quarter-century. For no good reason at all, I can’t butterfly, breaststroke, backstroke, crawl, dog paddle or even tread water. After class, my new classmates and I agree our inability to swim confounds all of us.

“I always wanted to learn and I tried to, it just never worked,” said Lucille Johnson, a great-grandmother who lives in Miami Gardens. “I don’t know why. I would just sink like a log.”

All of us were at the point where life, destiny -- whatever you want to call it -- opened up this opportunity. Johnson, 64, took the classes to help her heal; she lost her husband in April. Ana Aspuru, 46, got caught in a rip current and was tortured by helplessness.

For me, my ignorance had become too embarrassing. At the risk of revealing a company secret, the latest version of The Miami Herald’s Fidel Castro Plan -- a blueprint for coverage when the former Cuban dictator dies -- places me dangerously close to the water. I might need to swim after people to net some of the biggest interviews of my life.

I also wanted to silence the cynics who posited many theories on my lack of aquatic aptitude. Family members looked at my weight -- I’m a lithe 5-foot-11, 140 pounds -- and said I’d never truly float. Colleagues asked where I was from -- the Bronx -- and considered my lack of swimming skills some standard city-kid folly. Friends looked at my skin tone and just shook their head.

“I had no idea you were a statistic,” joked my friend, Will Jones.

Will was mocking the stereotype of black people not being able to swim. I was interested in how true this was, so I tried finding some national data -- which is hard when it comes to swimming ability in adults.

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Robert Samuels, Miami Herald Reporter, practices breathing underwater during the Beginner Adult Swim Class at Miami-Dade College Kendall Campus. NISSA BENJAMIN MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is 15 years old. Turns out, the study concluded, that one in four people between the ages of 18 and 24 could not swim from one end of a 24-yard pool to another. Between the ages of 55 and 64, about half could not do it.

When it comes to ethnic background, some 60 percent of black people could not do the task. Neither could 32 percent of whites or 45 percent of Hispanics.

These numbers probably don’t cause such a frenzy in the landlocked Midwest. But in Florida, the state health department estimates almost 400 people will drown each year. Two out of three drowning victims are adults, like me.

Even as I lost every childhood game of Marco Polo, I always loved the water. Drowning was never a true concern because I was always surrounded by buoyant people. As the youngest in my family, I believed I was too precious for someone to allow me to slip away.

But when I considered the numbers, I decided it was time to grow up. I crafted a goal of being able to swim from one end of Miami Dade College’s 25-yard pool to another -- without stopping -- by the first week of July. This would be my biggest step toward adulthood since I purchased my George Foreman Grill.

The best deal for classes seemed to be those offered through Miami Dade College’s Kendall Campus, where I could form a fraternity with others who had floundered. Each year, 110 adults go there to learn how to swim, according to program manager Laurie Shapero. It amounted to $15 per hour-long lesson, set to start in March.

Excited, I purchased a $20 pair of high-tech goggles. My swim trunks were green and baggy, the same I’ve had since 1996. Dreams danced in my head of having a huge Floatees around my arms and wrapping a duck-shaped inner tube around my waist, which I would wear proudly.

But there were to be no Floatees in March. The class was canceled for lack of interest.

Deep in lament, I conveyed my failed swimming endeavor to a friend. Tyler made a proposal many nonswimmers receive from their friends: he would teach me. About once every two weeks, we’d go to North Beach to practice. A physics nerd, Tyler emphasized the mechanics of cupping my hands and flattening my feet to increase my aquadynamics.

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Juan Alvarez, instructor, reminds Robert Samuels, Miami Herald Reporter, how to kick his legs during the Beginner Adult Swim Class at Miami-Dade College Kendall Campus. NISSA BENJAMIN MIAMI HERALD STAFF

When he saw I was sinking, he recommended I kick faster. This kept me afloat, but something still didn’t feel right. I was kicking wildly, hardly moving and quickly running out of breath. I’d walk away light-headed, blowing out of my nose so often that I’m sure half of Miami Beach thinks I’m on cocaine.

I was thankful for Tyler’s efforts, but also thankful another Miami-Dade session was coming. Summer was approaching, so more people were interested in slipping on their bathing suits. But storms delayed my first two classes. Destiny, it seemed, was testing my will.

The skies were perfect during the first class, attended by seven adults and myself. The instructor encouraged me to stick my face in the water and keep looking down if I really wanted to float.

It worked. For the first time in my life, I felt at ease in the water.

Our primary teacher’s name was Juan Alvarez, who dreamed his students would be good enough swimmers to one day snorkel and see another world.

“Once you see everything below you,” he said, “you are just not the same person.”

Alvarez dashed away my dream. There were no duck-shaped tubes or Floatees. We worked at first with what we were born with -- our arms and legs.

He also cautioned that none of us would quickly morph into good swimmers. His main goal was to increase our confidence in the water.

To show why we should have confidence, he performed a demonstration: He took Aspuru, who was once caught in a rip tide, and dunked her to the pool floor. When he let go, she floated back up. He did this to five other students -- all of whom popped right back up.

My body had no such spring. It slumped on the bottom of the pool, forcing me to contort all the way to the surface.

“Somebody’s too skinny,” he said, shaking his head and laughing. This is confidence building?

I came too far to be deterred. So, I began eating greasy French fries at fast-food joints.

Three lessons and three pounds later, I was kicking my feet while holding a flotation device called a kickboard. The most frightened woman, now comfortable enough to go in five feet of water, used two boards. People have their comfort zones.

“Don’t kill the water,” Alvarez would tell me. “It’s not going to make you go faster.”

After kicking to the end of the pool and back, with four or five breaks in between, Alvarez asked me to put down the kickboard. Now, he advised, make circles with your hands while kicking. Then magic happened.

“Oh my God,” another student yelled. “He’s swimming.”

Water was caulking my ears, but I could still hear my fellow classmates applauding.

I stopped about a third of the way, looked back, took off my goggles and smiled.

“Is that progress?” Alvarez asked.

“I think so!”

This wasn’t graceful swimming. There were no perfect hand motions or smiles on my face -- just a manic, lanky man circling in the water, gasping for air.

The other students were moving along as well. Aspuru turned out to be a natural, literally swimming laps around us. She was practicing twice a week at the pool, leaving us to wonder whether she actually knew how to swim before this.

“I swear, I am just learning,” she said once before tailing off.

Practice for me happened at the beach, once or twice a week. The salty water made it easier to float, allowing me to practice my stroking. There admittedly was an element of narcissism. My back was becoming straighter and slightly wider, my triceps a little more bulbous. My stomach had a paunch from all the french fries.

“You look good,” a co-worker told me as I walked through the office one day. “What have you been doing?”

With a self-satisfied gleam, I replied: “I’ve been swimming.”

Alvarez, now my beloved swim instructor, was impressed with my increasing mobility. But I was still gasping way too much, especially since my body -- now seven pounds heavier -- still had trouble rising above water.

He recommended I lift my face on every fourth stroke, turn my neck to the side and breathe out into my armpits.

Everywhere I went, I mimed these moves to prepare myself for the sixth and final lesson. This would be the day when I would relieve myself from the guilt of being a statistic. I planned to swim the entire length of the pool -- without stopping.

I took a deep breath and jumped in the water. I pushed off and started to exhale, with bubbles making pirouettes around my nose. Fluid arms, light legs. I silently counted: “One Mississippi . . . two Mississippi . . . three Mississippi . . . four.” Then a slight shift in body weight. Then, a breath.

I raised my head. The other side of the pool was getting closer, less than halfway there. My body felt active. Keep going, I thought.

I’m not sure when my form whittled, but my chest got heavy and my legs stiffened. My count was thrown off, and I began blowing faster for more oxygen.

Please new body, don’t fail me, I thought. Keep moving. And then, I’m not sure what happened. I couldn’t go anymore.

Planting my feet on the ground, I tried to gather my bearings. My arms couldn’t reach the wall when I stopped. I was 10 feet away, soaked in disappointment.

There was a brief moment, as a small girl in a green onesie asked me to get out of her way, that I dreaded going back for the rest of the class. But I did.

I’m confident that, with more practice, I’ll be good at swimming one day. After all, my amateurish, ugly swim has become the most invigorating part of my week.

Where to learn

For a list of American Red Cross-certified swimming classes and phone numbers in Miami-Dade and the Florida Keys visit In Broward, visit or call 866-797-7990.