Maurice Brown splashes into the pool, exploding a cloud of water around his fullback-sized body as he practices his freestyle swimming stroke.
He swims about 10 yards, almost halfway across.
Then he stops.
“I wasn’t comfortable,” he says to his teacher. “I just kind of freaked out. I couldn’t get a rhythm.”
The 24-year-old is learning to swim, and a face full of water still occasionally bothers him.
“Nothing I can do can help you get that comfort in the water,” say Marcus Dyer, his coach at Crawfish Aquatics. “It’s just experience. Right now is the hardest part — getting over fear and learning a natural movement in an unnatural way.”
Of the 10 people who drown each day in the United States, eight are adults or young adults older than 14, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Many American grown-ups — 37 percent — cannot swim the length of a standard pool, the CDC says.
Until recently, Brown was one of those adults.
All his life he has loved the water. But he feared it.
“I’m always used to having something under my feet, so I would never go to the deep end,” he says after his fourth and final lesson. “I used to never venture out of my comfort zone. I figure now is a better time than any other. It’s hard to learn as an adult, but I just took a big gulp and signed up.”
When most children take swimming lessons at about age 5, they learn the minimum number of skills, says Nan Fontenot, the director of swimming lessons at Crawfish Aquatics.
“Most parents who have their children in lessons want them to just be safe,” she says.
Even learning minimal skills helps. Taking swimming lessons reduces the risk of drowning by 88 percent for kids 1 to 4 years old, according to a study published in the Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine journal in 2009.
Adults often lose their knack for swimming, or they become fearful of water. When children learn to swim, their parents should learn as well, Fontenot says, and they should learn the proper ways to rescue a drowning swimmer.
“You shouldn’t jump in after the kids,” she says. “You should have a flotation device. You don’t want something like that to happen — a double drowning.”
Many adults don’t know how to swim in deeper water in lakes or the ocean and often become tired trying to swim to safety, she says. There are easier ways to be safe.
“Can you tread water? You could be on your back,” she says. “The hardest thing for most people is breathing.”
About seven years ago, Gary Merrifield hurt himself running, and a doctor recommend he try swimming. He realized he knew little about it.
“When I first got here, I could thrash around,” says Merrifield, 52, of St. Gabriel. “It kind of looked like a swim, but after about 20 yards I was exhausted.”
He took lessons and started training regularly. Now he competes in triathlons, even swimming up to 1.2 miles.
“I enjoy swimming now,” he says, preparing for a workout in the pool. “At first, it was a challenge to overcome and a fear. You would be surprised when you’re swimming in deeper water and looking down, the swim demons come into your mind. Now, I enjoy it. I look forward to it.”
Swimming is an excellent workout, Merrifield says, moving core muscles in ways other sports don’t. It causes fewer injuries than running and cycling, he says.
“The beauty of swimming, we call it a gift for life,” Fontenot says. “I’ve seen 90-year-olds do it.”
At Crawfish Aquatics, swim lessons for adults cost $160 for four private lessons. The YMCA of the Capital Area also offers lessons for adults. They are $60 for YMCA members and $105 for non-members. The Y also offers family swimming lessons, which are $99 for members and $126 for non-members. Scholarships for all YMCA programs are available, said Kristen Hogan, marketing director for the YMCA of the Capital Area.
As for Brown, now that he can swim the pool’s length, he wants to learn to go faster.
“I really enjoy it,” he says. “It’s a huge relief off my shoulders that in the water under unsafe conditions, I know what to do.”
He’s even wants to buy a house with a pool.