First swimming lessons at 73

First swimming lessons at 73

One in five Americans say they can’t swim, according to the Red Cross. The next level up (barely swim?) is where I was. I had never had lessons but taught myself to float, tread water, backstroke, and manage a couple of weak freestyle strokes.

For some reason, it’s embarrassing to not swim, almost up there with not being able to ride a bike or drive a car. Maybe it’s the surprise that was the usual reaction to my confession of ineptness in the water. 

My family never went to the beach or a pool because my dad feared water after he fell through the ice and almost drowned as a kid. In grade school I wanted to learn to swim at the YMCA, but my parents listened to the nuns who said that Catholics shouldn’t patronize a so-called Protestant organization. 

But why blame the nuns and my parents when I’d had a half-century on my own to learn? Swimming never seemed like a pressing need, however. I hoped that my limited skills would keep me from drowning in any water I was likely to be around. 

Why the impulse arose to sign up for a swimming class at age 73 is a mystery. Our building has an outdoor pool, but I lived here nine years before thinking about swimming lessons. I don’t expect to swim laps for fitness. Even if I were to become capable — a long shot — the pool isn’t open two-thirds of the year. I can’t see myself getting on a bus in the winter to go to a pool. 

Strictly speaking, then, I didn’t have much reason for swimming lessons, but I signed up for a seven-session Chicago Park District class this spring without thinking twice about it. 

Five of us gathered in March for the first one-hour lesson at the Fosco Park pool in University Village. Since I had at least 30 years on the other four, I expected to be the worst student. Our instructor, Alex, reassured me that one is never too old to swim.

Alex began by asking our goals. I didn’t realize I had a goal until “To swim one lap” popped out of my mouth. Since one lap could mean our building pool’s 13-yard length and not Fosco’s 25 yards, perhaps that was realistic. 

That first session, Alex taught us proper breathing underwater (through the nose), correct body position (level), and flutter kicking (small and fast). “Keep your legs up; kick from the hips,” Alex coached as we flutter kicked up and down the pool holding a kickboard. I returned home exhausted. The next lesson added streamlining (gliding with hands overlapped above our heads), treading water, and back floating.

Ricardo, our new teacher after Alex was transferred to another pool, started every lesson with a warmup of flutter kicking to develop stamina. It was disheartening to discover how little endurance I had in water. Apparently averaging about 10,000 steps a day is not adequate conditioning for swimming. Stamina in water is different from stamina on land, Ricardo explained.

Breaking down the parts of the front crawl, or freestyle, and the backstroke, Ricardo taught us to stroke, using one arm and then both arms, at the edge of the pool and then holding pool noodles. He added flutter kicking and, for the front crawl, side breathing. We then put all the pieces together but still used noodles for support. Starting by kicking off the wall and streamlining, we gradually increased our distance on both our backs and our fronts. Reminding us to keep our legs up and to look down when doing the front crawl, Ricardo said the body “is like a teeter-totter in the water; if the head goes up, the legs go down. You start to sink.”

I had no trouble with the backstroke, probably because I could breathe normally with my face out of the water, but the front crawl was still a problem. When Ricardo had us toss the noodles and swim freestyle half the length of the pool, I did it but was out of breath, and I couldn’t meet his next challenge of swimming the full length. I felt discouraged that I was where I’d started — I could do a backstroke but tired right away with the front crawl. I didn’t know whether to fault my breathing, strokes, endurance, or all three, but I reminded myself that when I took up running, I didn’t jog two miles immediately, and I was in my 20s then.

By that point, I had learned that there was another reason to achieve the 25-yard swim besides my goal of swimming one lap. It is the last of the Red Cross’s basic water safety competencies that I needed. I watched videos for tips on technique and went to a CPD open swim once a week to build stamina. But the goal still didn’t seem within reach in the seventh and last class when I stopped several yards short every time Ricardo told us to swim the front crawl the full length of the pool. 

With a minute left in that final class, Ricardo had us do one last freestyle swim. I was flagging as usual but determined to keep going. When my hand touched the wall, I shouted, “I did it!” Ricardo and the other two students — there were only three of us stalwarts left — cheered. It wasn’t easy, but I can work on endurance in our building’s pool this summer, hoping that my neighbors aren’t watching. 

I don’t expect to build up enough endurance, however, to swim for exercise. According to fitness websites, aerobic swimming begins at 500 yards — 20 times my hard-earned distance. I doubt that I will progress that far, and it’s okay. I’m happy to have met the Red Cross’s safety standard, and I’ll always have walking, for exercise and transportation. 

The swim class upended my notion of how fit I am, and I’ve adjusted my expectations to my age. Another need is pressing. My joints are creaky when I get up from bed. Why did I stop doing yoga? Not sure, but it’s time to resume.


Welcome to ChicagoNow.

our bloggers,

post comments, or

pitch your blog idea.

Subscribe by Email

Completely spam free, opt out any time.

Meet The Blogger

Marianne Goss

A retired university publications editor and journalist, I live in the South Loop and volunteer as a Chicago Greeter. Getting the most out of retired life in the big city will be a recurrent theme of this blog, but I consider any topic fair game because the perspective will be that of a retiree.

Recent posts

First swimming lessons at 73 »

Marianne Goss on Retired in Chicago
Posted today at 9:25 am

Is it normal to forget the day? »

Marianne Goss on Retired in Chicago
Posted Monday at 8:34 am

The downside of decorating comparisons »

Marianne Goss on Retired in Chicago
Posted May 9, 2022 at 7:24 am

Getting beyond guilt about parent in nursing home »

Marianne Goss on Retired in Chicago
Posted May 2, 2022 at 9:20 am

Dramatic Sunday evenings with PBS »

Marianne Goss on Retired in Chicago
Posted April 25, 2022 at 8:25 am

Recent Comments

It is very important to be concerned about your studies. I am very concerned about that. I have planned that…
Read the story | Reply to this comment
It is very important to be concerned about your studies. I am very concerned about that. I have planned that…
Read the story | Reply to this comment
In reply to Marianne Goss:
Dennis and Marianne, I have to be careful about the date for the first few days of every month! Like…
Read the story | Reply to this comment
I’ve done that, especially in January and February.
Read the story | Reply to this comment
In reply to Margaret H. Laing:
I’m usually reading the newspaper the first thing in the morning, but (incredibly) I must not have noted the date!
Read the story | Reply to this comment

Monthly Archives

May 2022
April 2022
March 2022
February 2022
January 2022
December 2021
November 2021
October 2021
September 2021
August 2021
July 2021
June 2021
May 2021
April 2021
March 2021
February 2021
January 2021
December 2020
November 2020
October 2020
September 2020
August 2020
July 2020
June 2020
May 2020
April 2020
March 2020
February 2020
January 2020
December 2019
November 2019
October 2019
September 2019
August 2019
July 2019
June 2019
May 2019
April 2019
March 2019
February 2019
January 2019
December 2018
November 2018
October 2018
September 2018
August 2018
July 2018
June 2018
May 2018
April 2018
March 2018
February 2018
January 2018
December 2017
November 2017
October 2017
September 2017
August 2017
July 2017
June 2017
May 2017
April 2017
March 2017
February 2017
January 2017
December 2016
November 2016
October 2016
September 2016
August 2016
July 2016
June 2016
May 2016
April 2016
March 2016
February 2016


Uncategorized (259)
Current events and social commentary (118)
Life lessons (80)
Chicago (51)
Health and fitness (50)
Retirement (49)
Reading (38)
Entertainment (36)
Consumer matters (36)
Consumer and money matters (35)


Latest on ChicagoNow

First swimming lessons at 73

from Retired in Chicago by Marianne Goss
posted today at 9:25 am

Photos: Boeing Starliner Successfully Launches to the International Space Station

from Cosmic Chicago by Michael Galindo
posted today at 7:36 am

The Last Week of School is the Best Week of the Year

from Dry it in the Water by Brett Baker
posted today at 12:09 am

Join Chicago’s Events to Uplift Cancer Survivors

from All is Well by twin
posted Sunday at 6:02 pm

How to Make a Safety Plan to Keep Your Family’s Summer Fun

from All is Well by twin
posted Sunday at 3:25 pm

Read these ChicagoNow blogs

Cubs Den

Chicago Cubs news and comprehensive blog, featuring old school baseball writing combined with the latest statistical trends

Pets in need of homes

Pets available for adoption in the Chicago area


It’s like the couch potato version of Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

About ChicagoNow



Recent posts RSS

Privacy policy (Updated)

Comment policy

Terms of service

Chicago Tribune Archives

Do not sell my personal info

©2022 CTMG – A Chicago Tribune website –
Crafted by the News Apps team

Read More

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.