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  • Denise King-Miller

The Grit and Determination to Learn how to Swim at Age 70

I was required to take swimming lessons in high school and thought I had learned how to swim. So, when my girlfriend asked if I wanted to train with her for an Olympic Triathlon comprising a 1.5k swim, a 40k bike ride, and a 10k run, I readily agreed. After all, I was a “boot camper” who worked out 4 days a week. I was in decent shape and thought nothing of the required 19-week training to prepare for the triathlon. In fact, in my mind the longer I had to train the better! So, my girlfriend and I signed up for the Y-Tri triathlon training program offered through the Washington Metropolitan YMCA.

Training began at 6:00 a.m. every morning. As boot campers, my girlfriend and I were already used to this routine. However, what I did not know was that we had to participate in what was called Olympic time trials. This meant that we had to be time-tested to see how fast, slow or in the middle we were when it came to running, biking, and swimming. The results allowed coaches to place trainees in the appropriate peer group. I was always placed in the slow group! My only goal was to finish since I was never much of a competitor. I was a good runner and biker, slow but consistent, and always crossed the finish line. However, swimming was another story.

When it came time to participate in the swimming trials, I got in the water, not sure of what I could do, but I was thinking that I could finish. The swim coach instructed me that I would be required to swim 200 meters, which is equivalent to eight laps. My heart stopped, or at least in my mind, which is how I felt. I took off swimming, but before I could get to the other end, I had a massive panic attack. What was wrong with me, I thought. I was grasping for air and urgently trying to grab the sidewall of the swimming pool. Obviously, I did not complete the swim trials and I felt intimidated and humiliated. My girlfriend finished her swim trials and was concerned about me. “What happened?” she asked. I had no explanation to give her. I had simply panicked. She assured me, as good friends do, that it would be okay and that with practice, I could do it. Truthfully, I seriously doubted her.

From that day forward, I had an intense aversion to swim training. Every Wednesday morning, I would show up for swimming practice already feeling defeated. My swim coaches would put me in a lane by myself and instructed me on basic swim techniques. They encouraged me to practice, practice, practice! My only thoughts at that time were how to get myself out of this nightmare. Admittingly, I am not a person who gives up easily and so begrudgingly I continued to show up for swim practice every week in addition to practicing on my own at least one to two days a week.

In my desperation, I also took swim lessons on Saturdays through the DC Department of Parks and Recreation Adult Swim Program. My coaches told me that before I could truly learn how to swim, I had to first acknowledge that I had aquaphobia - a fear of water. I had no idea that being around, let alone being in the water, would cause me to experience a panic attack. I feared losing control, and drowning…which made no sense because there were always two coaches and a lifeguard present at the pool.

I knew that if I was going to participate in the triathlon, I had to learn how to swim. And if I was going to learn how to swim, I had to learn how to deal with my phobia. There were several therapies my coaches recommended: (CBT, DBT, Hypnotherapy, Yoga, mindfulness, and meditation). I chose to try something I was familiar with and had done before. Yoga helped me tremendously with my strength, form, flexibility, and how to focus on my breathing. I learned how to breathe rhythmically while in the water and gradually my breath became coordinated with my swim strokes. Meditation took my mind to a still, quiet place where my body could float and be at peace without worry or panic. And mindfulness helped me learn to stay with difficult feelings like anxiety and panic without analyzing, suppressing, or encouraging them. Learning these combined techniques provided me with the coping mechanisms needed to manage my anxiety, fear, and panic when swimming. I began to build confidence in knowing that even if I occasionally got a little flustered in the water, surely, I would not drown. The more I practiced swimming using those techniques, the easier swimming became until suddenly I was swimming with ease and without fear, anxiety, or panic.

My friend and I successfully completed our first Olympic triathlon on October 10, 2020. Admittingly, training was a lot of challenging work and yet it turned out to be fun building friendships, persistence, endurance, and muscle. And just as my friend said, with practice, you can do it…and I did. You can too.

Video & Photo Credit: Sean Lewis, YMCA, Washington, DC

  • If you live in the Washington Metropolitan area and are interested in training for the 2023 Olympic/Sprint Triathlon with the Capital Y-TRI training program, click on the link below to learn more:

  • To learn more about aquaphobia treatment go to:, or


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