Many people have asked how we turned our four (oh so close to five) year old into a swimmer. And the answer is, we didn't, she did. But for those of you who are curious, here's what we did.
In January of 2009, I put three year old Mia into swim lessons once a week at the local community center. She loved the instructor and despised everything else. She cried, she screamed, she refused to get in the pool, she declined to even contemplate putting her face in the water. At the end of the class, the instructor suggested we take her back a class to one where I would get in the water with her, but I am stubborn and also feel that learning to swim is not optional and put her back in the same class again. She did slightly, ever so slightly, better.
And then it was summer, and Mia and I were talking about the neighborhood pool that is located a few feet from our house. She asked if we were going to go swim at that pool, and I foolishly told her that we could go every day all summer, if she wanted. She wanted. So we did. And at first, I didn't know why we did, because she would barely dip a toe in the baby pool. But she slowly got more comfortable. And then we got her a life jacket and let her start playing in the big pool. And then she made a friend. A friend who was two years older, and who Mia idolized, and who could swim. They played together, and when the friend wasn't there Mia worked and worked on her own, and then one day right around her fourth birthday we were all at the pool together, which meant that Mia had a dedicated adult and could play without her life jacket and all of the sudden Chris and I were staring open-mouthed in disbelief as our kid swam all on her own.
It was a rough doggy paddle, but Mia could really swim. She didn't get too much practice last summer, since it was usually just her and me and Owen and so she had to wear a life jacket. But every chance she got, she swam. And once the pool closed, we were back at the community center for twice a week classes. Rather than going down a level, she skipped a level. The classes made some small improvements in her technique, turned her doggy paddle into something more closely approaching freestyle, improved her back float, and had a big focus on water safety.
Mia talked about swim team all last summer, all fall, all winter, and all spring. So when the time came, I signed her up, and was shocked again when she jumped in and started swimming laps. Laps! In half an hour, she can cross the pool 15 times, or more. It leaves her starving and exhausted, but she loves it. And between daily coaching at swim team and daily swimming with me and Owen and her friends, she has improved incredibly this summer. She can do freestyle with side breathing. She can do a regulation backstroke. She can play Sharks and Minnows and insist on staying on the end with the teenagers rather than moving to the shallow end with the little kids. I still go nuts when she is in the middle of the pool and it is full of kids doing crazy stuff, and I restrict her probably much more than I need to, but the kid is a really excellent swimmer. You know, for not-quite-five.
So, what people really want to know, is how to make their kid an early swimmer. I dunno. What I think really helped Mia was wearing an actual life jacket rather than anything similar to water wings. That was suggested by her swim instructor, because the life jacket allows them to get a better feeling for the movements they need to actually swim, and the water wings restrict their arms so much that they never get a real feel for it. Second was just exposure. Every day all summer, twice a week the rest of the year. It allowed her to build and maintain a comfort level in the water. Third was a policy of trust but verify. Whenever possible, we let Mia give it a try. It meant hauling her sputtering out of the water fairly often early on, but we were careful to keep her away from actual danger while letting her experiment and learn. Fourth was just Mia. She was determined to swim, she loves it, and she seems to just have a natural inclination for it (in terms of attitude and interest, not talent). Finally, the difference between splashing through the water and actual swimming was definitely swim team. We happen to have a great program and amazing coaches at our neighborhood pool, and that daily work with someone who isn't Mom or Dad has made an amazing difference over the past few weeks.
People who see her swim ask if Chris and I were swimmers, if we started training her at birth, if we are already planning on college scholarships and the Olympics. I always say no, it is all Mia, and I think it is awfully premature to think of anything beyond the faint and likely-impossible dream of a ribbon higher than fifth place. (Mia comes in dead last in every race, I mean, of course she does, she's four.) But I do hope she continues to enjoy swimming, continues to want to do it, and continues to keep her competitive spirit. I think it is a great choice for her and would be happy to see her swim for years. Even if it means I spend half of every Saturday with a stop watch in my hand.