Building Confidence in the Water at the Y

August 07, 2018


Nearly 50 percent of adults can't swim well enough to save themselves from drowning. Here's how the South Side YMCA is helping change that statistic."

Nearly 50 percent of American adults can’t swim well enough to save themselves from a water-based emergency. But Julia Harper, a swim instructor and certified lifeguard at the South Side YMCA, is determined to change that statistic.

“I always encourage my students to dream big,” Harper says, adding that the biggest obstacle for most would-be swimmers is fear. “I don’t want them to hold back because they’re afraid.”

Zaheera Abdul, one of Harper’s adult swimmers at the South Side Y, wanted to learn so she could spend more time with her family. “A friend told me the Y was offering swim lessons for adults, and I realized this was my chance,” Abdul says. “I’d been watching my daughter swim for all these years, and if I was ever going to stop being afraid, I just needed to jump in and do it. And once I did, I realized there wasn’t really any fear.”

Of course, every swimmer comes to the pool with different goals, and some adults only have time for a lesson or two. On the first day of class, Harper makes sure to cover something useful on the very first of class, whether it’s front and back float, or the very beginning of a swim stroke.

“For some, that’s enough,” Harper says. “Knowing they can get from one place to another with a single stroke. Others people want to learn precision and speed, and they keep coming back for more lessons.”

The South Side YMCA offers swim programs for all age groups, from parent/child classes to adult swimmers. Abdul’s daughter has been taking lessons at the Y for three years, and she’s beyond the basic strokes now. It’s one reason Abdul decided to try lessons herself. “Julia’s lessons with my daughter were very straightforward,” Abdul says. “She stays firm, even if you feel tired or you want to give up, she keeps you moving. It sounds basic, but it’s true: if you just follow her instructions and trust her, you’ll find yourself succeeding.”

The most rewarding part of teaching, according to Harper, is hearing her students talk about reaching their dreams — both in the pool and in their life outside the Y — so helping adults like Abdul swim with their children is a great example of how the Y brings families together in surprising ways. “When I started out, I couldn’t swim,” Abdul says. “But I was amazed with the results. If you just put the fear aside, it can be done. And I did it.”

Click here to find a YMCA swim class near you.