Compared to others who had arrived as much as 30 minutes early, Sharron Sales, 62, threw open the doors of Central High School’s pool facility at 11:57 a.m., three minutes before the lesson began. She rushed in, sporting large hoop earrings and a hat that struggled to contain her white hair.
“I’m here!” she said, her voice coming out in gasps. “I’m outta breath but I’m here!”
It took 10 more minutes just for her to get the swim cap on and make her way to the pool’s edge. Unlike Sharron, most of the other students came in from the parking lot with their caps already on and had even gotten in early to tread water. Sharron was not one of that majority and slow and steady, she descended from the step ladder into the water.
“OH MY GOD,” Sharron bellowed. “OH, LORD, that’s cold!”
Waiting expectantly in the water, instructor Amy Benton turned to her.
“Sharron, why don’t you come over–”
“Come on down here, Sharron,” Amy said.
“Alright, I’m comin’,” Sharron said. She didn’t move.
Eventually, after a few deep breaths, Sharron treaded over to Amy, but not without another collection of hoots and hollers. Then, with Sharron finally in the water, the rest of the students moved to start working, their identical red caps with bold white text that read “Swimming Saves Lives Foundation,” bobbing above and below the water’s surface.
More than 120 people have gone through similar lessons with Adult Learn-to-Swim (ALTS) founder Amy Benton, who has guided more than 75 percent of them from not being able to put their heads underwater to being completely comfortable in it.
In the summer of 2016, Amy Benton became the first certified ALTS instructor in Kentucky from U.S. Masters Swimming. After using their curriculum in private at Lakeside Swim Club, she convinced William Kolb, a fellow instructor, and the Lakeside management to start their own ALTS program.
They had one pilot class of 10 students in February of 2017, some of which had been members for more than 30 years, but had never learned to swim. Then, with a grant of $1,000 from the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation, nearly 20 instructors taught 40 people to swim in four one hour sessions in April of the same year.
It wasn’t enough. People returned in search of ways to continue swimming and to spread the program to the rest of the community. So, Amy and William booked space at Central High School and The Academy at Shawnee for more beginner classes as well as a regular practice space for returning swimmers.
“The practice sessions were so popular that former students of ours would show up, walk in the door, and say ‘Hey, I have a couple friends in the parking lot,’ and Amy and I would look at each other and ask how many, and then there would be 12 people wanting to learn to swim,” William said.
Twenty-five minutes into the lesson, Sharron still hadn’t done any work. Vanta Lewis, 65, decided to change that. She paddled over to Sharron, who was greeting Sugar, another student, on the other end of the pool. She reached Sharron and clamped hands down on her shoulders.
“Let me put your shoulders in,” Vanta said. “That’s how you get warm.”
“Don’t you touch me,” Sharron said.
“Go on down!”
“I said don’t touch me!”
“NUH UH!” Sharron said, struggling against Vanta.
With one last push, Sharron went under. Resurfacing, she smiled. “It’s warm, isn’t it?” Vanta asked.
The rest of the students laughed, clad in rashguards, paisley patterned suits and suits with ties meant for a day at the beach, however, the environment of the building was just as warm as one.
In all her years, Sharron never learned to swim until ALTS, and even left Louisville for a time when her husband was sent to the Navy in Hawaii.
“Fifteen years! Pearl Harbor! The Pacific Ocean was in my backyard,” she said shaking her head at herself.
Will Armstrong, 41, was simply afraid to try something new. He never got around to swim until he came across the program on social media.
“I got confidence and literally took the plunge, just jumped in,” Will said. “My wife had been asking me to learn how to swim for a long time. I was never quite ready to do it — too nervous.”
Many students who came to ALTS had different stories. Some were pushed into a pool at age seven at a birthday party and had not been in water since. Students grew up with no pool access and kept their lack of swimming ability a secret. There were even students who grew up in India and got pushed into a well in attempts to learn to swim, with no avail.
This program made it work, no matter the story.
Thirty-four minutes into the class, Amy went through the specifics of kicking, watching Vanta’s legs sink as she swam.
“You need to keep your motor running in the back,” Amy said to Vanta.
Vanta tried again and followed Amy’s instruction, kicking her legs harder and splashing more white water behind her. Almost immediately, she made more progress than the previous attempt. She came up from the water to cheers awarding her accomplishment, and she burst into laughter, her chest swelling with pride as the laughter turned into the coughing up of water.
Throughout the lesson, applause was brought with every small victory, every stroke and every motion made toward the other end of the pool. With each attempt, their strokes became less awkward and more smooth. Their perseverance conquered their fear, and the atmosphere oozed with relaxation as the smiles of the students became impossibly wider.
In terms of wide smiles, Pam Martin, 61, was once a national swimmer, and she volunteered to help teach the class. She was overwhelmingly excited about the experience.
“I never taught anyone how to swim. And if you follow the steps of the program, within the first half an hour to 45 minutes of a class, the people are swimming,” she said.
Yes, the people were definitely swimming. They could make it almost all the way down the pool. The class of seven — six women, seven people of color — was just one session away from their graduation ceremony, where they would complete the five water competencies required by the Red Cross: jump in the water, tread or float for one minute, find an exit, swim 25 yards and exit the pool. However, the graduation was pushed back because Central’s pool closed due to problems with their water. There was nowhere else to do it, so the lesson was canceled for the day.
“There’s been, historically, low interest and support in keeping [the pool] running,” William said. “The level of care is not maintained and there’s severe issues that frequently interrupt our teaching, and it is disappointing to our students.”
Despite frequent problems, the facility is a nice and long lasting one. When Pam swam for Sacred Heart Academy in high school, they swam in that same pool.
“We had a great atmosphere for developing very good swimmers in the city of Louisville. We enjoyed swimming at Central,” Pam said.
There are only two pools in the West End open during the winter. Owned by Jefferson County Public Schools and publicly funded, pools at Central and The Academy at Shawnee aren’t open to the public. A lifeguard must be present and the ALTS program has to pay to keep it open.
AJ Zakee is that lifeguard. As a lifeguard at Central for two years, AJ saw the early beginnings of the ALTS program and has watched it grow since. He saw the confidence, self esteem and overall happiness boosting by merely observing.
“Swimming is really important, especially a life saving skill, so a lot of these people aren’t gonna have the opportunity with there not being a lot of pools, so I think it’s really beneficial,” AJ said.
The historic stereotype surrounding the ability of black people to swim most likely stemmed from the early segregation of the institution. White people had a much higher rate of access to pools whole black community members were either shunned or were afraid to even enter the facility.
While segregation of swimming pools was made illegal after World War II, the cultural segregation was much harder to shake. It is apparent in research into the phenomenon that oftentimes, black people would want to swim so badly that they would turn to more dangerous waters or pools without lifeguards where they would later associate swimming with death or injury and would never attempt to swim in their own.
The program faces other problems like money, the occasional absent student and fear held by many students, but they are small in the face of work based on passionate belief that people should learn to swim free of cost.
“[We run this program] simply because we believe that everyone should know how to swim,” William said. “We’ve taught doctors and lawyers and judges and we’ve taught janitors and third shift workers and street cleaners. All kinds of socioeconomic classes and income, but those are not things that we know ahead of time and they’re not things that we want [or need] to know ahead of time.”
Forty-two minutes into the class, the students tucked noodles under their arms and waded down to the other end of the pool in a line, giggling and letting out train sounds. Far at the end of the train, Sharron waddled behind them as the caboose. She let out a wail that sounded more like the high note sung in an opera. Then, it became singing.
“I’ve never done nothin’ like this before!” she exclaimed in between the belting of her high notes. “I can’t feel nothin’ under my feet!”
They learned to scull with their arms, which helped the technique of treading water. One student would get it, and the rest would break into contagious smiles again and again. Each small victory came with a shimmy of shoulders or a fist pump in the air. Cheers echoed up in the high ceiling.
With requests for class space also shooting to the roof, according to William, extreme demand in the program comes mostly from ages 50 to 70 in the West End of Louisville. Vanta, Sharron and all the students in the current class fit the category.
“African American men and women in the West End have no access to water and nowhere to swim, no opportunities to learn to swim or to go to a pool for most of their life, so this was like a community game changer,” William said.
Unlike the West End of the city, the amount of pools in the east end is of abundance.
“You could literally spit in the east end and hit a swimming pool,” William said.
In 2017, the USA Swimming Foundation found that 64 percent of black children had none or almost no swimming skill. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that black children ages five to 19 are five times more likely to drown than white children. More specifically, black children ages 11-12 are 10 times more likely.
“[Swimming has] always been presented as something that is really hard to do,” Sharron said. “I even had an instructor when Shawnee High School first built their pool, and it was discouraging because my teacher told me I had a tail and I was sinking.” That specific comment brought on her fear of swimming.
“I’m telling you words do more harm sometimes than physical abuse, and it did,” she said.
The racial divide reveals itself prominently in the West End of Louisville. ALTS is working to mend the problem by paying just to keep the only two pools open for practice, since most aren’t open to public lap swimming.
Over time, just like the complications of the program, the people in it conquered their fear and made goals for themselves beyond the four basic swim lessons.
“Being in the water beforehand, I would have just seen being underwater as just a panic inducing thing,” Will said. “But once I knew the skills that William taught, I knew I wasn’t going to panic, and when I realized I was okay, I felt such contentment and relaxation in the water.” Now, he can’t be kept out of the water and wants to swim more.
“I am loving this class. It’s been a refresher, it’s been rejuvenating, and it brings back good memories,” Vanta said. Now, she wants the motivation to go back to her water aerobics class, where she can be able to swim in the deep end.
“I was always told, black folks didn’t learn to swim,” Sharron said. Now, she’s using the strength and motivation from learning hoe to swim to setting a goal to get to the top of a climbing wall at the Downtown Y.
At 1:11 p.m., 11 minutes after the lesson was supposed to end, Vanta, Sharron, and the other students hoisted themselves from the pool with wrinkly hands and grins still plastered on their faces.
“Hey!” Vanta called everyone to attention. “Sharron said we gon’ be in the Olympics.”
“Nah,” Sharron said. “I was just kiddin’.”
Tricia Baldwin, an instructor, spoke up. “Actually, they have a senior games.”
Vanta’s eyes lit up and she turned to Sharron in confirmation. “Okay, Sharron!”
Sharron looked up. “What, now?!” It’s not like she was that late for the class, anyway.
“Learning to Swim” by North Charleston on Flickr is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. No changes were made to the original image. Use of the image does not indicate photographer endorsement of the article.