Enjoy the water - safely and confidently

Shortly after I settled in for a nap at Madison Park beach one weekend, I was awakened by what I thought was Tarzan himself.

I opened my eyes to witness two grown men pounding their chests and raising their arms as they surrendered to the unforgiving chill of Lake Washington. No wetsuits. No fear.

I had a secondhand adrenaline rush just watching them.

"They're nuts," said a woman two towels over.

"No kidding," replied her partner.

Spring fever is surely in the air, and beach season is quickly approaching us - more quickly for some than others.

As a swim instructor, I have years of dives, laps and bone-chilling plunges behind me. Being in and around water makes me feel free. That comfort level, however, puts me in a surprising minority.

According to a Gallup Poll and the Transpersonal Swimming Institute (TSI), 64 percent of adults in this country are afraid in deep lake or ocean water. Forty-six percent are afraid in deep water in pools. Thirty-nine percent are scared of putting their heads underwater.

But whether you're 2 or 92, feeling safe in and around water is vital both to prevent drowning and to make life more enjoyable - especially while living in a saturated region like the Puget Sound.

Here are some safety tips and options for swimmers and swimmers-to-be.

Take a lesson.

If you have any reservations about the water, find the time and money to get some guidance. Find a program that will help you reach your goals and go at your natural pace.

Seek out highly skilled instructors who can give you some individual attention.

Don't be afraid to ask questions along the way.

Bruce Myka, co-owner of Seattle's Orca Swim School, said, "Swimming lessons not only teach you how to move through the water, but they also teach safe behavior in and around the water, and they reinforce those behaviors through supervised practice."

Survey the space.

Whether you're at a community pool or the lake shore, do some research before entering the water. Take note of where the water is deep and shallow, if lifeguards are on duty and if proper flotation devices are available (i.e. lifejackets, rescue tubes).

Stay in control.

Drownings can happen when swimmers become panicked, distracted or unaware of their own bodies.

There is a difference between challenging yourself and pushing yourself too far. It is your responsibility to know that difference.

M. Ellen Dash, president of TSI, advised, "There is one thing you need to know before you are ready to learn to swim; without it, you cannot succeed. You need to know how to prevent panic and to remain in control. Once you learn control and peace of mind in the water, learning the mechanics of swimming is simple and natural."

Be a rule-follower.

The best way to help enforce guidelines set by the aquatics staff is by following them yourself.

If you are with children, review water expectations with them before they jump in.

Don't go alone.

If you are remotely hesitant about swimming, don't venture out there alone. Ask a friend, parent or someone else you know to accompany you.

Having accountability is a great way to stay safe and have a good time.

Who knows, maybe this is your season to howl like Tarzan. See you at the beach!

Amy McDougall works with Orca Swim School, which rents space throughout the Greater Seattle area.

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