Heads under water: Freeport YMCA swim class helps adults overcome their fear

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FREEPORT — Vaida Labzintyte said she has a recurring dream that she’s swimming.

But each time, she wakes up to realize that it’s just that – a dream. And she’s not alone.

Labzintyte is one of more than a third of adults in the United States who can’t swim at least 25 yards – the length of a standard swimming pool – putting them at an increased risk of drowning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the CDC website, about 10 people die from unintentional drowning every day, but only two of them are 14 years old or younger.

These are statistics the Casco Bay YMCA is hoping to change with a free, five-week swimming class for adults 18 or older with little-to-no swimming experience. The class, called Swimming Saves Lives, is made possible by a $3,000 grant from the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation, the charitable arm of US Masters Swimming.

Aquatics Director Ben St. Cyr applied for the grant on behalf of the Y with help from Anne Hayton, who is on the branch’s advisory board, her husband Robert Ashley and Michael Hurd, a veteran Swimming Saves Lives instructor.

The Casco Bay YMCA is the first branch in southern Maine to offer such a program.

During a May 3 interview, Hayton and Ashley recalled reading a 2014 article in The New York Times by Jane Brody, whose 66-year-old father-in-law never learned to swim and drowned one day while fishing. The couple filed the article away in their “things to do during retirement” folder.

“There’s a huge unmet need,” Ashley said. “There’s hundreds and hundreds of people out there that would like to take lessons and for whatever reason haven’t been able to.”

“For all of those who show up for it, there’s probably many more who don’t make the call to get lessons,” Hayton added. “A lot of people had parents who were fearful or didn’t learn, and it gets passed on. … A lot of our students have kids coming for lessons at the Y and that’s what got them in … (and) a lot of people want to swim for fitness as they’re getting older.”

Hayton knows it can be daunting to decide to learn to swim as an adult.

Although she learned as a kid, she basically had to re-teach herself at 40 by putting her face in a bowl of water at the dinner table to practice breathing techniques. Eventually, three years ago, she swam the 2.4 miles from Peaks Island to Portland’s East End Beach during the Peaks to Portland Swim.

Last September, she and Ashley became certified Swimming Saves Lives program instructors. They now teach four sessions a week with 28 other volunteers and 60 students ranging in age from 24 to 89.

About a third of their students are new Americans, like Vaida Labzintyte.

Bucket list

Labzintyte moved to Maine from Lithuania 13 years ago, when she was 21. She drives 45 minutes from her home in Biddeford to the Casco Bay YMCA at 14 Old South Freeport Road every Thursday for her lesson with Hayton.

Halfway through the program, Labzintyte said in a May 3 interview, she had already learned how to float in the pool and put her head under water.

It was something she had been trying to learn for almost 30 years.

“I remember vividly when I was 5 or 6, my relatives tried to teach me … (but) nobody who’s tried to teach me over the 30 years has been successful,” she said. “I was very resistant.”

Like many adults who resist learning to swim, Labzintyte’s parents aren’t swimmers; her mother never learned and although her father said he knows how to swim, Labzintyte said she’s never seen him in the water.

Two years ago, Labzintyte had another unsuccessful attempt at learning to swim, which at the time, she thought would be her last. But earlier this year, she was writing down all of the things she wanted to achieve and “learning to swim” kept creeping to the top of the list.

“I just want to be able to swim and enjoy summers,” Labzintyte said, noting that she’d like to take a swim on Memorial Day weekend, book a cruise, go snorkeling and eventually buy a house with a pool – all things she couldn’t do before.

“I kept saying next year, next year and I would never do it because I just couldn’t,” she added. “It’s been holding me back for years.”

Labzintyte attributes her success at the Y to Hayton’s step-by-step instruction and the small size of the group – one volunteer instructor for every one to two students a session.

“I’m very methodical and need instructions from A to Z,” she said. “With Anne it was just simple … you do it one step at a time so it doesn’t seem so overwhelming.”

Fear of water

While Labzintyte said her inability to swim at times was nerve-wracking and embarrassing, Jagabandhu Chattopadhyay of Yarmouth said he became afraid each time he even approached a body of water.

When he was child in India, he almost drowned and was hospitalized. Since then, he’s tried to teach himself to learn how to swim, but never got far.

“One thing that’s very different (about teaching adults, rather than kids) is that many adults have not learned to swim because of a scary experience or a traumatic experience,” Hayton said. “They come to lessons with 20 years of fear of the water.”

But, now that Chattopadhyay and his wife, Swati, have a 2-year-old daughter, Aishee, they feel the stakes are even higher.

“I’m scared because if she falls in the water or something, I don’t know how to help her,” Chattopadhyay said. “It’s required for us.”

After only two sessions, the couple said, any fear they had of water was gone.

“They individually acknowledge everyone and … teach every stage,” Swati Chattopadhyay said.

“It’s not like you’re left in a crowd to do it by yourself,” Jagabandhu Chattopadhyay added. “We’ve already seen a difference and it’s fun for me now.”

The Chattopadhyays and Labzintyte said they are grateful for the opportunity the YMCA provided, and are hoping to become members of the organization.

“For me, it’s like a Christmas miracle in (May),” Labzintyte said. “Anyone can learn. It’s never too late.”

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or jvansaun@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

Jagabandhu Chattopadhyay, left, is one of about 60 adults learning to swim in the Casco Bay YMCA’s new “Swimming Saves Lives” program. Spouses Robert Ashley, middle, and Anne Hayton are certified instructors through the U.S. Masters Swimming program; they teach the classes with about 28 other volunteer instructors.

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