Who has not heard of recent stories of adults attempting to save their child from drowning only to drown themselves? It can be difficult as an adult to face a life-long fear, and learn a new skill. For Leigh Aiken, her fear of the water was ingrained in her as a child and reiterated through personal, family tragedy. Her courage and positive attitude is evidence of a lady with a determined disposition and spirited personality who wants to be safely in control around the water, and will learn to swim!
‘Stay away from that water! Never ever go near that water!’
“If you were a child growing up in the Lowcountry, you were probably told this on a daily basis. In my community, the water was something to fear; you could drown and possibly never be found.
I grew up on Warsaw and Pollawanna Island on St. Helena Island. My home on Pollawanna was steps away from the water. I played on the banks and in the meadows, surrounded by the most beautiful water and scenery ever, but I never had a desire to even put my feet into the water.
After graduation and leaving the lowcountry I lived in cities and never gave much thought to swimming or going to the beach while vacationing back in the Lowcountry. I always heard my parents warning to stay away from the water. My fears were deeply ingrained and solidified in the aftermath of three major events in my life.
First, while living in Seattle, Washington — a place with the most beautiful lakes and scenery ever— I went on a white water rafting trip with friends. Our first year was so much fun, strapped in my life jacket I felt safe and thoroughly enjoyed myself. A year later we returned for another excursion, but because of that year’s snowmelt, the water was rough and scary. My canoe capsized! And I was pulled to safety. Unfortunately, one of our friends in the group drowned that day. It was devastating.
Next, on one of the very rare hot days in Seattle, I decided to put on a bathing suit and go to the neighborhood pool. I started out in the shallow end, hoping to cool down. Unfortunately, I was unaware that I had drifted into the deep end. I panicked! I was not aware of anything until I found myself on the pool deck with someone pushing on my chest. That person turned out to be my neighbor, who saved me that day, and I thank God for sending him. I never went into another body of water in Seattle again.
Later, my job relocated me to Atlanta, GA. I was so thankful for the move as it brought me closer to South Carolina. Now I could get home to the Lowcountry all the time. My favorite brother was still living on Warsaw Island, and he loved fishing and going out on his boat. When he’d go fishing, I loved watching from the dock and waiting for him to return, because, I was NOT getting into the water or in the boat! In 2005, my brother (who had 22 years of Navy experience and swam like a fish) did not return from fishing one day. He drown and our family never got closure or truly knew what happened.
After this incident, I hated the water. The joy and the beauty of the Lowcountry was gone for me. It took several years of praying and searching for peace, because I still had to visit home …my family is here.
After retiring in 2006, I remained in Georgia and slowly began coming home on occasion. Finally in 2013, I made the decision to move home, to the Lowcountry. I settled on Lady’s Island because it is where my oldest sister used to live when I was growing up, and I loved it.
Life is amazing. I found the YMCA through an instructor named Jeff Lewis. I had never been to a YMCA in my life; however upon entering the facility, I was greeted by Tracey Robinson and given a tour of the facility by Sandra. I knew I had found a home.
I took kickboxing classes, which turned into running, which led me to doing 10K bridge runs in Savannah and Charleston. To prep for the runs and give us strength training, one day Jeff said, “We are going to get into the pool”. Well, I said, ‘That’s it for me, no pool.” I will not put my face into that water and I am deathly afraid of the water.
But by this time, Jeff’s class felt like family and no one tried to pushed me towards getting in the pool, instead they said things like “I will help you Ms. Leigh”, and “We’ve got your back!’ and ‘You can do this!’
Hearing the positive feedback and encouragement, I slowly got into the pool (still hearing my parents warning in the back of my head.) I was given some googles and told to just put my face into the water very slowly. I thought, “Okay, I can do that!” Besides, me being the only one in this group that couldn’t swim was not cool!
Soon after this, I found myself in Lou Bergen’s office telling her I wanted to sign up for swimming lessons. She was excited to get me enrolled. I started out with Ms. Shelia, but it was close to her summer hiatus in Maine, so I began in earnest with Instructor Franzi.
I told her about my difficult relationship with the water and she reassured me that I would be fine. We have been together since last fall. She is patient, supportive and we laugh together, even when I mess up.
I have found that learning to swim as an adult is not easy. It uses muscles that I didn’t know I had, and swimming in the winter takes a lot of discipline. These lessons have been most challenging, but when you begin to get the hang of it, it can be fun. As Franzi tells me, “Trust the water and relax”.
Did I want to quit many times, YES. Will I quit, NO.
Never think you are too old to learn something new, and don’t limit your learning. I understood my parent’s warnings because it was out of love and a reflection of what they were taught from their parents. Learn how to overcome your fears, believe in yourself, and put yourself in the company of positive people.
JOIN THE Y. GET IN THE WATER.”
– Leigh Aiken
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