By Kimberlee Akimoto
I learned how to swim when I was twenty, which is surprising for a girl who grew up on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This period of procrastination started on a seemingly idyllic day when I was about four. My mother carried me in her arms and as we ambled along the shoreline, I delighted at the sight of sunlight dancing upon calm blue waters and the brush of a soft breeze – sea salty and coconut sweet – on my cherubic cheek.
Then my mother turned her back to the ocean and in a split second, a rogue wave barreled towards the shore and crashed over us. My mother says the wave wasn’t that big, but from my tiny perspective, it was of epic proportions. This memory of water prompted a phobia that would keep me from venturing near large bodies of water for years.
To my horror, there was a mandatory “drown-proofing” class in the fourth grade. I shivered despite the tropical heat on that first day as my classmates were tested for their swimming ability. When it was my turn, I reluctantly stepped into the pool and was instructed to “swim as far as I could.” I took a deep breath, submerged myself into the water and promptly sank. Then I panicked. When I finally found my way to the surface, I gasped for air and vowed never to return. Indeed, I was so traumatized by that second “near drowning” that I convinced my mother to get me out of that horrible class.
It would take over a decade for me to finally face my fear of the water. At twenty, I took swimming lessons at the local YWCA with a couple of kids and a 60-year-old woman. Thanks to the patience of our seasoned swim coach, I felt more at ease in the water but the ocean still terrified me.
Several years later, I found myself spending one glorious summer in the Greek Islands on a study abroad program. In an uncharacteristically bold move, I signed up for a sailing expedition with some classmates. We left Mandraki Harbor and headed out into the Aegean on a beautiful summer’s day and although the ship tipped precariously from side to side, it was impossible to feel fear when salty air whipped through my hair and a Grecian sun kissed my face. We docked off a secluded beach and as the ship’s captain prepared a tantalizing Mediterranean meal on deck, my classmates all jumped into the ocean to cool off. I peered over the edge of the ship and hesitated before deciding “why not?” I cautiously took hold of the side-ladder and descended into the deep blue sea to join them.
Thank goodness for those swim lessons.
As I arched my back into a floating position and looked up into the clear blue sky, I could feel my phobia drift away and a new memory of water gently flowing through my mind.