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Swim school helps adults overcome fear in the water

Karen Dudley navigates the pool.
Karen Dudley navigates the pool.
Photo by Ian Swaby
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People travel from all over the country to attend classes with Miracle Swimming School for Adults, a company headquartered in Sarasota. 

Despite the wide interest, the lessons aren't typically a topic discussed openly. 

In fact, said the school’s founder Melon Dash, some adults don’t even want to talk to their spouses about taking swimming lessons.

They’ll simply tell them they’re leaving for a conference. 

Despite the apprehensions of those adults regarding the topic, they are far from alone. 

Dash said it is important to remember, especially during May, National Water Safety Month, that 80% of drownings are by adults, not children.

Most, she said, are because people are afraid to swim and haven't had the chance to learn how. 

Polls also repeatedly find that sizable numbers of adults are unable to swim. For instance, a Lloyd's Register Foundation World Risk Poll found that 55% of people 15 and older worldwide said they cannot swim unassisted, including 24% of people within that age range in high-income economies. 

According to Dash, the solution isn't just to teach adults, but to bring a different ethos entirely — an approach that isn't about constant movement, but about calm. 

“When they are quiet inside, then they are all here," she said. "Their presence of mind and their body are in the same place; they just start swimming spontaneously."

Making a pilgrimage

Dash's method has yet to be adopted by any major organizations, such as the YMCA or the Red Cross, but something about it must be working.

Students don't appear to be deterred by the long journey to the classes. Nor do they forget about Dash over the years, with some students returning after learning from her decades ago. 

The courses, including the introductory ones, cost upwards of $1,000 each.

Selwyn DeSouza of Benicia, California, is one student who felt compelled to make the trip to Sarasota, having learned from Dash about 30 years ago when she was teaching in the San Francisco Bay area. 

"I felt that her methods of teaching were really going to work for me,” he said.

Although other obligations stopped him from continuing, just recently he decided to visit Sarasota.

“I thought, I’m going to go where she is,” he said.

Selwyn DeSouza talks with Melon Dash.
Photo by Ian Swaby

Adults need to take the courses for different reasons, Dash said. 

In her observations, about 90% of students fear the water because they had a parent who was afraid, while 60% have had a traumatic experience in the water.

However, students find a solution in her philosophy, known as The 5 Circles, which involves a series of circles that help students conceptualize states ranging from "comfortable" to "panic."

Students must aim to remain within the first circle.

Dash, who grew up in upstate New York, was far from a struggling swimmer herself. 

She has swum competitively since age 7. 

She also has a bachelor's of science in exercise science and nutrition from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a master’s of science in exercise physiology from the University of Michigan. 

As a graduate student, she coached men's and women's swim teams at Keene State College in New Hampshire, and served as assistant coach of the women’s swim teams at Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley.

Yet during her time with Keene State College in 1978, she found that about 10 of the 20 students in each class struggled to follow her directions. 

With the permission of the dean of the college, she started a new exclusive swimming class, with the school marketing the course while also compensating her for her efforts. Its success led to her decision to found Miracle Swimming School for Adults in 1983.

The essentials

The offerings of the school begin with two foundational courses.

The Essentials One course teaches students skills including placing their face in the water and learning to let the water support them. 

This includes being tethered to the wall, from which beginner students tend to be unwilling to let go.

"When they can feel the water holding them up, then they don't mind letting go, and that is a huge transformation," she said.

The Essentials Two course involves learning to be at ease in deep water.

As Karen Dudley made her way through the courses, she experienced what she describes as "aha!" moments, like what a child might experience.

When she was young, she had never had the opportunity to learn to swim; her mother, who was afraid of water, wrote a note to her school preventing her from taking lessons. 

The first moment came from being still in the water and realizing she could be comfortable. 

“That was the first experience I ever had that water can actually lift you up, just by walking the pool,” she said.

The second was when she figured out her breathing. 

“That was the first time I was ever in the middle of the pool and actually saw it instead of trying to get through it,” she said. 

When another swimmer, who was moving back and forth across the pool, asked her how she could be comfortable simply standing in the deep water, she knew the method was working. 

The answer wasn't efficiency, but being at peace. 

“It's been wonderful," Dudley said. "I can't say enough about it.”



Ian Swaby

Ian Swaby is the Sarasota neighbors writer for the Observer. Ian is a Florida State University graduate of Editing, Writing, and Media and previously worked in the publishing industry in the Cayman Islands.

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