Despite the many benefits swimming gives — including survival skills — I have always hated it. Thanks to hydrophobia, deep water always sent shivers down my spine whenever I was in it. Like other people who put off doing something, I’ve had motivations to learn to swim. But nothing ever pushed me into taking that vital first step until earlier this year.
That’s when a deal was struck with a friend, one that would help us both be healthier. “I will quit smoking, and you will learn how to swim!” he said. His voice was still echoing in my head on that fateful first day, delayed from April for the usual reasons (being busy, not having a swimsuit). It wasn’t until June that I started class, when every school in Vietnam is out for summer. It was the wrong choice.
Swim Class is for Kids?
Like a kid headed to their first day at school, excited I prepared everything the night before. The alarm woke me up at 7.30am, and I rushed to blend into the hustle of people going to the pool. The class started at 8am.
“Kim Vy?” the coach called. “Next time, please get your daughter here earlier!”
He looked at the membership card, on which neither age nor photo is printed. Seeing my eyebrows raised, he gave me a smile as an apology. With a question nagging at me, I stepped toward the pool in my swimsuit, swim cap, earplugs and goggles.
My excitement quickly disappeared when I noticed that all of my classmates were kids under the age of 11. There weren’t only two or three of them, but about 20. More than 40 eyes — including some from the coaches and the parents — started staring at me, and I stared at the space in front of me. The question was answered. I was hating swimming more than ever.
The only difference between my swimming lesson and a circus show is that I was the only clown, and I wasn’t getting paid. My show reached its climax when bright orange inflatable armbands and a back float were offered to me. I heard the parents to the side giggling. Three of them were seated on benches waiting for their kids. They were continuously laughing.
“Can you guys swim?” I asked them.
“No!” they responded, and continued to laugh.
Vietnam has a coastline of 3,260km, double the north-to-south distance of the country. 390 rivers flow in between. According to the Department of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, there are more than 3,600 cases of drowning every year in Vietnam — the highest rate in the region. Some estimates suggest the real figures could be twice or even triple the size. According to the Alliance for Safe Children, 13,000 children die each year from drowning — that’s 35 children per day.
Even with such geography and statistics, swimming isn’t considered a vital part of the curriculum in Vietnam. In school, it’s offered as an optional subject in high school physical education.
And worst of all, people aren’t concerned. Like the parents who watched me flail, most Vietnamese don’t take swimming seriously.
“Bend your knees, extend your legs and close them together!” the coach yelled. He was teaching the breaststroke, and it seemed easier to practise it on the ground than in the water.
While my legs were still shaking, I figured out why these adults didn’t want to take a swimming course. They gave me many reasons, from being busy with life to hydrophobia, from an aversion to getting tanned to some kind of illness that doesn’t allow people to swim. But I guess the truth is they don’t want to experience what I had to go through during my first swimming lesson.
I am not addicted to swimming, but I have a daily routine now. And my coach does, too — three sessions in the morning and two sessions after 5pm every day, with more than 20 students attending each one. For me, though, it’s just mornings. People might not attach importance to their lives, but the risk of their children drowning matters to them.
Thanks to the government and local swimming advocacy organisations, this awareness is growing wings. With the support of the World Medical Association, the Department of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs has developed a project that started in 2012 and extends to 2015, aiming to reduce the annual drowning rate by 25 percent compared with 2010. There will be free swimming lessons sponsored by government and local organisations, currently in pilot runs in Can Tho, Danang, Hai Phong, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
There are also NGOs such as Water Safety Vietnam who are helping children learn to swim. Since 2012 they have taught over 1,000 kids to swim as well as over 300 adults. They have also recruited and trained local swimming coaches.
As Donald Miller, a best-selling American author, once wrote, “Fear is a manipulative emotion that can trick us into living a boring life.”
Swimming is a new Barbie that I, a little girl, found in an intimidating-looking toy box. The fear hasn’t disappeared, but instead it’s been transformed into a respect for the water — and now that I can do it, I don’t hate swimming anymore.