The Summer I Went Swimming

“I don’t know how to swim,” I said quietly.

June 24, 2022 | | Back Issues

I know for sure that summer is here when I hear the exuberant splash of babies in water wings, the echoes of kids’ laughter as they play games in a backyard pool, or the quiet swish of a perfect dive on a cool morning.

Growing up, I was terrified of water and swimming. I lived on a farm, far from swimming lessons or a public pool in town. It wasn’t until I moved to a small village called Kilbride, south of Campbellville, Ontario, that I was invited to swim with other kids in a wobbly, above-ground pool.

Over I went through the backyard brambles, with bathing suit on and towel in hand. I stood outside the structure, looking up at the bulging walls, trying to figure out the next step. “Come in, the ladder is on the other side!” the older kids beckoned.

“I don’t know how…” I said. I was about seven years old, and I was sweaty, scared and out of my comfort zone. “Use the ladder!” they screeched. “I don’t know how to swim,” I said quietly. One of the nice girls came to the ladder and helped me in.

The water was cool and silky on my skin. If you haven’t swum before, it’s a wonderful weightless feeling, at first both scary and mystifying. You can feel your body all over but feel nothing at the same time. My nose went up and down against the surface while I found my feet somewhere below. At first, I just did a bit of bobbing, stepping around gingerly. I watched nervously as the kids splashed and whipped each other with a pool toy. I coughed out a little water. I wasn’t sure I liked this and thought about how to get out.

A boy slowly walked toward me, his eyes just above the water, like a water snake. “Come on, kid. I’ve got you,” he grinned, then he reached down to grab my leg, pulling it from under me. I instantly went under. “Swim!” he said, laughing. I came up, gasping. “Look, you’re a fish. Swim!” he chortled, his rough hand grabbing my ankle this time. “I caught a fish, I caught a fish!” he exclaimed, dunking me again. I could see bubbles and colours beneath the surface, until I filled with water and came up coughing for real.

I somehow got out and made my way home. Swimming wasn’t for me.

Years later, a lovely friend of my parents, Sue, had my mom and me over for lunch. My mom packed me a swimsuit. When we arrived, my eyes welled at the sight of a very large rectangle of water. Sue saw my fright, and without hesitation, gathered up my growing body and let me cling to her in the water until I felt safe to let go. She showed me how to kick where the deep end started; how to get to the edge and shimmy back to the ladder. She showed me how to float on my back, and I saw the glory of the sky above me and finally felt the quiet that immersing yourself in water can bring. I loved it and I’m forever grateful Sue gave me the time and kindness to start to learn that day.

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  • Fast-forward a few more years and I’m in Brampton, in walking distance of pools and lessons! I began gathering glorious stamps in my Red Cross booklet, and little patches and medallions as I flew through the levels. Even more exciting, my gymnast friends asked me to join them in diving lessons at the McMurchy pool. They were all nimble and confident, lifelong swimmers, especially my one friend, Samantha, who had not only a backyard pool, but a cottage to boot, and went to waterskiing camp every summer. I was determined to catch up.

    Soon I was springboard diving, to the calls of our coach, Dave. We were in love with him, our preteen brains fuelled by the sharp smell of chlorine and the fantastic “Womp!” of the springboard as it launched us into the air. Dave’s strong arms pulled us out at the side and we insisted, “Just one more dive,” even though our legs were shaking from treading water, and all the flips and turns.

    Unlike some of my gymnast friends, I was never good enough to compete. However, between achieving my levels and diving, I learned to love the water, and to feel comfortable no matter the size of the pool or lake. I like boating, canoeing and kayaking, and have confidence in my skills on the open water.

    I watch now as my son, Adrian, enjoys our backyard pool. He can flip (no lessons from Dave required; a teenager’s body just seems to know how), swim to the bottom, and whip pool toys at his friends while treading water, or shark through water to the sound of their music at dusk. They ask us about the “secret” nearby waterfalls they’ve heard stories about. We ask them to stay away from this private property – even as we know they will probably slip down against orders for the clandestine thrill of water rushing over their feet and backs, or to sit in the natural whirling pools.

    More Info

    Help save the monarchs!

    Majestic monarch butterflies are a delight for kids and adults alike. And their life cycle is a fascinating science-in-action experience many of us grew up with. Now, however, their numbers are in serious peril – down 90 per cent in the past three decades, according to Save Our Monarchs. Milkweed, the caterpillars’ only source of food, is also down 90 per cent due to chemical spraying and habitat loss. You can help by planting the ethereal, silky-stranded milkweed seeds. Locally, you can order them free from the Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy; you’ll receive about 30 seeds and instructions. Or you can order mixed pollinator seeds via the Save Our Monarchs website. One ounce covers about 1,000 square feet with milkweed and other pollinator-friendly plants.

    Learn to swim

    If you’re looking for swimming lessons, you won’t go wrong with the Canadian Red Cross, the pre-eminent provider of certification for swimming and water safety for over 75 years. Red Cross instructors train for over 75 hours, and along with swimming they teach safety, accident prevention, rescue and lifesaving skills. Getting started with a little one? Programs start at four months. Ready to learn as an adult? It’s never too late! Check the Red Cross website to learn more, and then check with your local pool for how to sign up.

    Safety first

    Do you use online marketplaces to sell your kids’ stuff? Or to furnish their spaces? When meeting up with a buyer or seller, protecting your safety and privacy is a priority. Dufferin OPP have launched Project Safe Trade at the Orangeville OPP detachment for just this purpose.

    The new community safety zone at their visitor parking lot in Orangeville is the perfect spot for safe online purchase exchanges. The parking spot is available at all times, no booking necessary. Look for the “handshake” sign at 390 C Line.


    Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives (PAMA) wants to help you discover shinrin-yoku, which translates to “forest bathing” – a practice of slow wandering or resting in nature. Families can give it a try to introduce this concept to their younger ones. Hosted by Sock Gee Gan, a certified forest therapy guide, the sessions run on July 21, 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., and August 13, 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. They begin with a guided visit to ceramist and sculptor Peter Powning’s retrospective exhibition before continuing outside in Gage Park. Rest and rejuvenation is guaranteed at this family-friendly event. Call 905-791-4055 to register.

    About the Author More by Bethany Lee

    Bethany Lee is a freelance writer who lives in Mono.

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