Swim class for the truly terrified

The lessons run six hours a day, five days in a row. For most students, it’s their last hope.
Julia McKinnell

Swim class for the truly terrifiedPhyllis Lear never learned to swim and nearly drowned when she was eight. The scare left her with a lifelong fear of water and a stubborn will to conquer the problem. She doggedly took beginner swim lessons. “I failed every single time,” she says from her home in California. “You’d think it’s not so hard, but for me it was hard. You’d go for an hour, get in the pool and it’s freezing, and nobody ever worked on my strokes.”

Then Lear spotted an ad for a swim clinic specifically for aquaphobic adults. It’s run by Paul Lennon, a former competitive swimmer who uses exposure therapy to treat aquaphobia. Lennon holds his Adult Aquaphobia Swim Centre workshops ([email protected]) all over the world, renting swimming facilities such as the YMCA, and acclimatizes his clients in warm water for six hours straight on the first lesson. His clinics, for which he charges US$995, run for six hours a day, five days in a row. Lear, who was then 64 and “in pretty good shape,” had signed up. But when she learned about the exposure therapy, she thought, “Who in their right mind can go swimming for six hours? I’m cancelling.” She told her husband. “My husband said, ‘Go and when you get tired, come home.’ ”

Lear recalls, “Some people couldn’t put their head in the water. All they did was practise putting their face in the water. I could put my head in the water in the shallow end and not be freaked out. Paul had two other instructors with him and a lifeguard. We felt extremely safe. They got in the water with us. In those six hours, I was never tired. The warm water was a huge plus. We never got cold. I would bring water and power bars. Anybody can get out at any time. We kept our snacks right by the pool.”

With regular swimming lessons, Lear says, “you hold on to the side of the pool and you kick. We never did that. There was no holding on to the side of the pool. First, Paul teaches you how to float, to get you comfortable in the water. He doesn’t teach you how to tread water until you’re down the line a bit.”
Lennon’s next workshop is this month in California. He told Maclean’s, “I feel bad because I have 3,000 people from the Internet who want to participate in that workshop. We have lots of Canadian students. At least one in every workshop is from Toronto.”

His biggest problem is finding swimming facilities that meet his prerequisites, like the warm water. “I usually operate at 92˚ F [33˚ C].” With exposure therapy, “the water has to be warm so they can relax. It has to be a safe, comfy, cozy environment. No spectators. No cameras.”

Traditional lessons, he says, teach backstroke and breaststroke. “That’s locomotion. That’s not learning to swim. That’s getting from point A to point B and we don’t do that until much later.”

Lear remembers floating and treading water for hours at the YMCA in Glendale, Calif. “The pool had the most interesting tile. Paul would say, ‘Where are you, Phyllis? What are you doing? You’re supposed to be paying attention.’ I was staring at the tile. I got into the tile.”

“Most of my students come to me as a last hope,” says Lennon. “They’ve tried swimming lessons many, many times. They say it’s a social handicap. It’s anticipatory anxiety. Everybody thinks they’re going to be the one who won’t survive the class.” Lennon empathizes with the problem of anxiety. At swim meets, he used to “choke.” “As soon as I know I have serious competition, I don’t do well. Many years later, I was finally diagnosed with anxiety disorder. Nobody knows,” he says. “Everyone thinks of me as so solid and confident and a leader. If they knew I had problems with anxiety, they would faint. But I’ve had problems all my life. I still suffer but I mask it with a facade of confidence.”

That’s one reason he’s never expanded the program. “People say to me, ‘Paul, you’re sitting on a gold mine. You should franchise this.’ But I’ve never had any interest in that. My students trust me. My heart is in it. If someone learns how to teach the program, they haven’t been through what I’ve been through. They don’t have the empathy. Me, I understand nervousness and anxiety and fear. I’ve had to deal with it my whole life. But I have the ability in the water as a swimmer, so it’s a good marriage of the two.”

“The biggest win for me,” says Lear, “was when I went to Hawaii. I dove off the boat and snorkelled. I was like, ‘What is this?’ I couldn’t believe it. My husband couldn’t believe it. I was in the water for an hour.”