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Monday, April 16, 2012



After my horrible experience at Rock Lake pool when I was five, my mom decided to enroll me in swimming lessons at the YWCA downtown in Charleston on Quarrier Street. I was seven and her reasoning for having me take lessons was twofold: I would learn how to swim and the YWCA was close to both of my working parents’ offices. And yes, I would be able to walk to Capitol Street to either of their offices.

It had been two years since that first episode and yet the minute I was taken inside of the YWCA by my parents, I knew that chlorine smell instantly. Wasn’t one of my favorite smells either. Back then, you had to wear a bathing cap if you were a female—didn’t matter your age either. Girls’ caps were rubbery white things that had a chin strap with holes in it for the buckle.  Once you had it on, your head felt like it was being mashed and you certainly couldn’t hear well either.

So here I was with a bunch of girls whom I didn’t know and a swimming instructor. She made us get in the shallow end and showed us swimming strokes. I tried but got nowhere that first day. Thought that it would only be a couple of days and I’d have swimming mastered. Boy was I wrong!
There were no hair dryers back then; you had to towel dry your hair. Mine took forever to dry and so here I was dressed and walking down Quarrier Street reeking of chlorine with sopping wet hair. A seven year old can walk fast and in no time, I reached my mom’s office in the Kanawha Valley Bank building on Capitol Street, got on the elevator and was in her office.

“How did it go?” she asked. And I told her that I hated it and would probably never learn to swim. “Give it a chance” she told me and she went back to her work and I busied myself with a steno tablet and a pencil until it was time for her to quit work for the day. We met up with my dad and he drove us home. But in the back of my mind, I knew I had to go back to the YWCA the next day and the next and the next and I didn’t want to go. No way to get out of it either when you’re seven and your parents are way older and insistent.

Next day came and they dropped me off at the YWCA and this day was far worse. The instructor showed us more swimming strokes and it might as well have been in some secret code: It didn’t work for me. I was splashing around with the horrid bathing cap on, when all of girls were told that we were going to have to jump into the deep end. Terror set into my heart. I had been in a deep end at Rock Lake and I certainly didn’t want in this one. We were herded along the side of the pool and one by one I saw girls jumping into the deep end all right!
Most of them went under and the instructor took a long bamboo pole and rescued each one.

When it came my turn, I went under as well and had to grab onto that pole; I didn’t think I’d ever get out of the deep water. After that it was time to leave and so I went through the same routine of towel drying my hair, getting dressed and walking down the street to Capitol Street to my mom’s office. After a month of this, I told my parents that I didn’t want to take anymore swimming lessons because I hadn’t learned how to swim and I was terrified of jumping in the deep end.

Thank goodness they let me quit. In retrospect, making young kids jump in fourteen feet of water to sink or swim was not what one would call the right thing to do. It was the norm. It wasn’t the fault of the YWCA: It was just how swimming lessons were taught then. We had no air wings for our arms—not invented yet. And I sure didn’t learn to swim that summer.

Oh I would learn to swim but it would take me ten more years. Yes, I had an instructor but she was a college one and no way was I forced to jump in the deep end. Times had changed for the better!!

Sherry Hill


  1. Sherry, I, too, learned to swim by trial and error at the same YWCA, Rock Lake Pool, and the North Carolina coast where our family rented a beach house for a week or so each year. Needless-to-say, I also had some near drowning experiences. And, regardless of the teaching techniques - for better or worse, children still have to drink some unwanted water in order to learn to swim. But, of course, it's a necessary thing. By the way, over time, I turned out to be a fairly decent swimmer, learned to love it and still swim regularly (in season) in our gym's swimming pool.

  2. Su you said it so well: It was trial and error. I think I must have swallowed so much chlorinated water that I can't remember. I did learn to swim when I was 17 at Marshall and have loved swimming ever since. But to go back to those lessons, there sure had to be a better way.
    Thanks for your comment!!

  3. No problem : )

    By the way, you can take a look at sierra pools - Swimming Lessons

    1. Thank you for the link for swimming lessons.I did learn to swim when I was 17 and still love it. But there is no way I would ever go near that YWCA's pool: What memories! And not good ones either.