Cassondra Gainey remembers the experience as if it were last weekend.


What: SwimCalm is a swimming class geared for adults who have a fear of the water and based on the curriculum of the Miracle Swimming Institute, based in Sarasota, Fla.

Cost: The fee for Charleston tri-county residents is $400, which includes a total of 24 hours of instruction, pool rentals and course materials.

For more:

What: In support of SwimCalm, proceeds from the annual 12-mile Swim Around Charleston, set for Sept. 21, will help defray the expenses of the course for those who are unable to afford it.

For More: www.swim

About 14 years ago, she attended a pool party and a guy who was "horsing around" picked her up and acted like he was going to throw her in the deep end.

"My heart was pounding and I said, 'Put me down, put me down,' and eventually he did, but I had to leave the party after that."

What the man didn't know was that Gainey was terrified of water. She describes herself as an "anxious scaredy-cat" when it comes to water.

That's the main reason why Gainey, who is 34 and aspires to start swimming for exercise, took time off from her work and drove from her home in Raleigh, N.C., to Charleston take a new, five-day class geared not only for adults but for those who have fear of the water.


Go to many public pools in Lowcountry this summer and you will be hard-pressed not to see swimming lessons for children starting, ending or underway. Area recreation departments and nonprofits have stepped up their game in recent years.

But what about adults? What about those who did not have the privilege of having lessons as a child, or have had a bad experience and may even have a phobia of getting in the area's bounty of rivers, lakes, creeks, surf and pools?

A new adult swimming program, SwimCalm, has been launched by one of the area's most accomplished adult swimmers, marathoner and Charleston City Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson.

Now 51, Wilson traces the origin of starting a local program to November 2010 when she lost her job as the principal harpist for the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. She was one of 12 musicians let go.

As an accomplished marathon swimmer, aquatics was not only something she knew but something that brought her "great joy."

"I wanted to find a way to coach, teach, train myself and maybe others in the water but more so, wanted to find a good path and figure out how to rebuild my life without dependence on the arts," says Wilson.

A friend of hers pointed her in the direction of Miracle Swimming Institute, based in Sarasota, Fla., and the two went down for training and certification.

Miracle Swimming, originally founded in 1983, says it differs from more conventional swimming lessons that emphasize learning strokes.

Its website says, "At Miracle Swimming, we know that learning to swim and learning strokes are separate processes, at least for adults. We teach adults to swim: to be one with the water, confident and peaceful in the deep. Once they are confident and safe in deep water, students are able to learn strokes."

Despite Wilson's advanced knowledge of swimming, that approach struck a chord with her.

"I would have never believed that something this effective could exist until I saw and experienced it for myself. I saw lives transformed and students set free from something that had been unconquerable for a lifetime," says Wilson, of adults overcoming the fear of water.

"From personal experience, I knew what it was like to have a battery of experiences that required conquering fear and coming out the other side a better, more capable person," says Wilson, pointing to both the precariousness of being both a professional musician and a marathon swimmer.

She created SwimCalm as a local affiliate of Miracle Swimming and is now teaching classes on a regular basis.

Alternative approach

Wilson acknowledges that other conventional swimming lessons are available around Charleston, through municipal recreation departments and private instructors, but they may not be best for those with a fear or anxiety of water.

"Traditional lessons work for many people, and that's great, but they do not work for fearful adults and actually set them back in many cases," says Wilson. "Fearful adults in the water are very common, and they need a very different method of instruction, one that teaches how to prevent the panic they experience, how the water works and what to expect in the water."

Classes are small. If Wilson is teaching by herself, she limits the class to four students. She is training assistants, but keeps the ratio about three to four students per instructor.

Maximum size for a class is 10 with her and two assistants.

"These are very fearful students, personalized attention and keeping a close watch is critical," she say.

Gainey and two other women who took a five-day SwimCalm course earlier this month are exactly the adults that Wilson is talking about.

Gainey says she would not be able to learn to swim with a "batch," or large group of people, and needed a small group setting. She went from not being able to put her face in the water to swimming 25 meters in five days.

"The next step for me is to take another swimming lesson, but before that, I'm going to seek out water and practice what I've learned here," she says.

Swimming with fear

Even some people who get in the water have fears to overcome.

Ginger Herrick, 55, of Charleston, started competing in triathlons two years ago, but unlike triathletes who swim freestyle, she did the backstroke. Efforts to go to swimming clinics turned out frustrating and fruitless.

"I was trying to start ahead of where I was at and it took me a long time to say, 'Yes, I'm afraid of the water - not off the charts afraid - but I'm still afraid,'" says Herrick.

"I thought it was a bad thing to have water in your mouth. I didn't like to put my face in the water. I didn't like going in the deep end (of a pool). How I got through those eight (triathlon) races, I don't know."

Before the end of the class, Herrick was diving for rings and floating in the deep end. She hopes to return to more advanced swimming lessons and maybe swim freestyle in a triathlon in the future.

"I think there are so many adults who would be too afraid to take swimming lessons," says Herrick. "When you're an adult, you think that you're supposed to already know how to swim and don't want to admit there's something, that's so seemingly basic, that you can't do."

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.