Building a Better Diver: Becoming One with the Water

Tina’s New Mask

Until just six months ago if someone would have asked me what was the one thing I was most reluctant to do underwater I would have said without hesitation removing my mask. I have been a certified diver since 2002. I have dived in a variety of environments, including several ocean dives. Why was removing my mask so frightening? The shear thought would strike panic in me. I had in fact removed my mask several times before. However, on dive #20 I did have a mask implode underwater at the 25-foot platform. I was pushing so hard to keep the mask on my face that my hands went right through the damn thing. Why did I feel the same way about underwater mask removal as I did a trip to the dentist? I think the best place to begin is to discuss how I really felt in the water.

As I’ve mentioned previously, my parents both had an unnatural fear of the water. Although I was allowed to wade through the local creek and swim when I would visit my Aunt, the encouragement to spend any amount of time in the water simply was not there. You can imagine when I asked for swimming lessons for my ninth birthday how well my request was received. Nevertheless, as I got older I was determined to just teach myself.

For  my Open Water  I was required to do a “swim” test. The test simply required me to tread water at the pool’s edge for 5-10 minutes. On at least one  occasion I was told that if I needed to grab the side of the pool for a rest I could; the only true requirement was to keep my feet kicking. For the Advanced Open Water, I’m pretty sure we didn’t even do a swim test. Skip ahead more than 10 years and I am finally planning for a new certification. In little more than a month Andy and I will be participating in the GUE Fundamentals class in Florida. The rigorous standards that GUE maintains for their divers are the main reason we chose to go this route. Last year, when we decided to pursue  GUE Fundamentals I remember looking through the skills needed to pass. Gasp, removing the mask was there, and so was a swim test.

This is what happens when you push as hard as you can on your mask.

For GUE Fundies, a student has to swim 300 m in 14 minutes and complete an underwater swim of ~20 m. No problem. After all, I had taught myself to swim years earlier. Or did I? On our first trip to the pool for training I came to the realization that I did not teach myself to swim. I taught myself to keep my head out of the water and move somewhat forward at an awkward pace. I found out that the ability to hold one’s nose shut (without the help of a few fingers) is not an innate ability. If I wasn’t swimming, what was I doing? I was panicking. I was simply doing whatever I had to do to get from one end of the pool to another. Breathing heavy and feeling like I wanted to cry I decided that I needed to make a plan. At 37 years old, I was finally going to learn how to swim.

Formal swim lessons seemed to be the obvious place to begin. I found a place that gave private adult swim lessons and was reasonably priced. I explained to the coach on the phone that I was not a very experienced swimmer and needed help on everything from holding my breath to strokes and kicks. The initial response I got was “I’m sure you’re not that bad.” So, with much hesitation, I set off for my first official swim lesson.

Arriving at the pool, a bubbly instructor with a very welcoming smile met me. First things first, she wanted to assess my ability so she could come up with a game plan to help me reach my goals. I was told to swim a single lap using any stroke I choose. As I eased in the pool I decided that I would “swim” freestyle. I had seen Andy do this hundreds of times. How hard could it be? Let’s just say that about six feet into the “swim” I inhaled enough water to force me to stand up coughing and gagging. Yes, stand up; after all, I was only in 3 feet of water. The instructor’s smile was replaced with a look of astonishment. Change of plan. Instead of freestyle she asked me to swim one complete lap using whatever technique I was comfortable with. So down the length of the pool and back I went via my special “modified doggy paddle.” Next I was asked to float on my front and back. Holding my nose with my hand I lay on my belly and could feel myself sinking rather than floating. Panic would soon take over causing me to inhale even more water as I struggled to flip myself onto my back. Once on my back I lay completely still floating like a cork. Within 10 minutes the instructor made an incredible discovery regarding my swimming ability or lack thereof; my main problem was that I could not put my face under water. So how in the hell was I considered to be a diver for the past 12 years?

Swimming lessons began once a week for two months. Skills such as how to float, move my arms, kick my feet, hold my breath, and calmly get my face wet were reviewed every single time in the pool. After eight lessons I was told the best thing I could do was get a membership at the local YMCA, get in the water, and swim.

In hindsight, I should have been more aware of how uncomfortable I was underwater. I should have known that I well and truly could not swim. Unfortunately, two scuba certifications and 50 dives only supported the delusion that my discomfort and lack of skills was totally acceptable. So did I let myself down or did my instructors let me down? I believe all should equally share the fault.

Lets skip ahead six months. As for where I am now, I am a completely different diver. The ability to swim has improved my diving ten-fold. My frog kicks are stronger; I am more efficient underwater. I no longer need my fingers to hold my nose. I have no apprehension whatsoever about getting my face wet. I can dive down to the deep end of the pool and swim around with complete ease. As for my underwater mask removal, I look forward to it. I can flood and clear my mask while maintaining trim and buoyancy at depth. Currently, I am working on removing my mask and, while holding onto my buddy’s arm, swimming at least 50 feet before replacing it.

Comfortably underwater and swimming ability are vital skills that are so often overlooked. In my quest to build a better diver I could have never imagined that the most crucial first step would not even have me in scuba gear, but in a YMCA swimming pool. Not only has this experience made me a better diver, but it has also made me a better dive buddy. In the past, I have relied so much more than I should have on Andy to make-up for my incompetence. The burden that was on him was unfair. Since truly learning how to swim and increasing my comfort level in the water, Andy has said he feels like we are finally sharing our dive responsibilities 50/50.