Helen Newton ’14 started her lesson at the LeRoy Greason pool by instructing two novice swimmers in goggles and swim caps to sink to the bottom of the pool. They obliged without hesitation, but did emit shrieks as they entered the cold water.
Newton explained that she has her swimming students begin by sinking like stones as a way to develop their ease in water. “What I like to teach is comfort with the water,” she said. “You can control your breath and your stroke better when you’ve established authority over the water.”
Newton is one of six volunteer coaches — five Bowdoin students and one Bowdoin employee — who this spring, from March to May, offered six weeks of Women’s Swimming Lessons at the Farley Field House pool. The women-only program is in its fourth year, and is open to any Bowdoin student, staff or faculty member who does not know how to swim or who would like to improve their swimming skills.
Melissa Quinby, director of the Bowdoin Women’s Resource Center, said that a few years ago, during a series of lunches the Women’s Center hosted for underrepresented women at Bowdoin, two Muslim students expressed a desire to learn to swim. They were stymied, however, by their inability to be in the pool at the same time as men. “That planted the seed,” Quinby explained.
Quinby worked with Brad Burnham, head coach of swimming and diving, to arrange a women-only time in the pool and to ask swim team members to serve as instructors and life guards.
When the program began in 2009, just three instructors — Erin McAuliffe ’11, Sydney Miller ’12 and Caitlin Callahan ’11 (who is now assistant director at the McKeen Center and the one staff member who teaches women’s swimming lessons) — offered just one weekly lesson. This year, the program had six instructors — Sarah Hirschfeld ’13, Katherine Foley ’13, Bridget Killian ’16, Mariah Reading ’16, Callahan and Newton. Between the six of them, they offered two hour-long lessons a week, one on Tuesday night and the second on Sunday night.
Between 20 and 25 students participated. “Some women went to both the Tuesday and Sunday night sessions,” Callahan said, which sped up their progress. “The second lesson makes such a difference.” She explained that when adults are learning to swim, it’s usually not so much lack of muscle control that impedes their learning but rather a long-held fear of water. The increased exposure to water — especially in a supportive environment — helps them overcome their anxiety.
Callahan said that having only women in the pool also boosts their progress. It allays students’ self-consciousness about their trepidation or their unease of being in a bathing suit. “Some haven’t been in one in a long time,” she pointed out.
Katherine Foley ’13, who is a new instructor this year and a champion swimmer for Bowdoin’s swim team, said having no men around makes the lessons “just about swimming.”
On a recent night at the pool, Faith Biegon ’14 said she finally took the plunge this March when she signed up for the swimming program. “I never thought I’d float in water or get into a body of water,” she confessed as she held onto the side of the pool, water dripping from her bathing cap. Bigeon grew up in Kenya and never had the opportunity to learn. After chatting for a bit about swimming, she turned around and did a steady crawl back to Foley, who was waiting for her at the other end of the pool.
Some students come with a basic foundation in swimming. Kristen Dorsey, a Bowdoin employee, said she signed up for the lessons to compliment her exercise routine. “I run and needed something to cross train with,” she said. Joyce Mayer, a senior housekeeper for Bowdoin, said she joined the program because she had been swimming “the wrong way for so long.”
Both Newton and Foley, who were the two instructors at the pool on a recent night, interspersed their instructions — “Put your ear all the way in the water!” “Focus on your breath as soon as you get your arm out of the water” “Make your arms big!” — with lots of encouragement. “Awesome job ladies!” Newton said repeatedly. “Great job, girls!” Foley told her students, who beamed in response.
Learning how to swim is not only important for safety, it also increases your social options, Foley said. “Now this summer, the students will be able to swim with their friends or go to the beach,” she said.
“I love teaching swimming lessons. It’s so much fun to share what I like to do with other people,” Newton said. She added, “Hearing them say, ‘Wow, I never thought I’d be able to do that,’ feels so good.”