Children used to tease Yvette McLaughlin during her time growing up in Jersey City, Hudson County, because she did not know how to swim.
"I grew up in a housing project. My parents couldn't afford swimming lessons. They didn't know about the YMCA," said McLaughlin, a security officer, who lives in Atlantic City. "In my mind, I can hear the kids saying, 'You're a sissy.'"
McLaughlin, 51, quieted the childhood voices in her head by learning how to swim as an adult at the Milton & Betty Katz Jewish Community Center in Margate.
On a recent Friday, McLaughlin was in the center's swimming pool with her instructor, swim services director Stephanie Wakefield. McLaughlin swam with a floating belt around her waist along with either a flotation noodle draped around her shoulders or a kicking mat to hold onto. McLaughlin was doing laps during what was only her seventh swimming lesson. Wake-field was working with McLaughlin on her footwork. Wakefield wanted a good steady splash. A thud meant the foot was coming too far out of the water. Silence meant the feet were not breaking the surface.
With the summer vacation season starting soon, southern New Jersey swimming instructors want to spread the word that it is never to late to learn how to swim.
Wakefield, 34, of Margate, has been teaching adults how to swim for about 10 years.
"In the 1950s, a swimming lesson might have been throwing the person in the water," Wakefield said. "Nowadays, it's different. You have to use gentle persuasion. You have to be more encouraging, motivating and helping to build confidence."
Wakefield teaches as part of the Lenny Krayzelburg Swim Academy. Supported and designed by Krayzel-burg, an American backstroke swimmer, Olympic gold medalist and former world record holder, the swim method is meant to teach and inspire water safety and to increase self-confidence and independence. The year-round program offers a variety of lesson options for adults, children and infants.
Candalaria Torres, 37, was inspired to take lessons to help her children - Gael, 7, and twins Scheyler and Ilan, 6 - learn how to swim.
When Torres was 6 years old, her mother took her to a pool to learn how to swim, but Torres wouldn't let go of the side of the wall out of fear. Gael Torres is a special needs child, and his mother felt it might help him feel more comfortable with the lessons if he could see her swim.
"I've come such a long way in life. The last thing I didn't accomplish in life was swimming," said Torres, who lives in Franklinville, Gloucester County.
Torres learned to swim at the Cumberland Cape Atlantic YMCA in Vineland. Torres is taking her children there to learn how to swim. Torres said it is very difficult when a person has a fear of drowning and a fear of not making it to the other side of the pool, but that she has made herself push past the fear.
Jennifer Helm, senior program director of aquatics at the Y, taught Torres how to swim.
Helm has been teaching swimming for the past 40 years. She said most of the adults who want to learn how to swim are women. She's taught students ranging in age from 18 to 85. Many doctors will recommend swimming to patients as a form of exercise because it doesn't put weight on joints and can be less painful than exercises done on land, Helm said.
When Helm meets with a person who can't swim, she first asks the person to demonstrate what they know how to do in the water.
Helm will work with the person on the basics: how to breathe and what kinds of strokes they know how to do, if any. Most people can float on the water, but if someone has fear of the water, the first thing that needs to be addressed is helping the person to relax or be comfortable while in the pool.
Katrina Abbott, of Egg Harbor Township, has been working for the past six years as the aquatics director at Tilton Fitness & Wellness in Northfield.
Adults, who have fear of the water, usually either had a bad experience as children, or they know somebody who had a bad experience, Abbott said. If an adult has a fear of the water in addition to not being able to swim, it is more of a challenge to get them to relax in the water, she said.
"When it comes to fear of water, you have to break the mental and physical barriers," Abbott said.
Abbott has found that one of the things non-swimmers don't realize is that it takes a lot of time and a great deal of practice for a person to master the basics of swimming. When starting out, Abbott will put new swimmers in the water with her to evaluate their swim level.
Karen Pratz is the aquatic supervisor at the Ocean City Aquatic and Fitness Center. A person who never learned how to swim needs to know breathing control and rhythmic breathing. They also need to learn how to kick their feet in the water, how to glide and how to use their arms, Pratz said. Someone who lives inland or on the mainland may have never learned how to swim. Many times, children don't learn how to swim because their parents did not know, and so they never had the opportunity to go to the beach or pool, Pratz said.
"We have to be very compassionate and understanding for people who are afraid," Pratz said. "You have to refine your skills a little bit to teach an adult successfully."
Contact Vincent Jackson:
Adult swimming lessons
Here's a list of some local places adults can learn how to swim:
Milton & Betty Katz Jewish Community Center,
501 North Jerome Ave., Margate, 609-822-1167, jcc.atlantic.org
Cost: Four 30-minute
private lessons, $120 members/$150 nonmembers
& Wellness in Northfield and Galloway Township,
Cost: Eight 30-minute private lessons, $240
Cumberland Cape Atlantic YMCA, YMCA of Vineland
1159 East Landis Ave., Vineland, 856-691-0030, vinelandymca.org
Cost: Seven 45-minute group lessons, $46 facility members/
$68 program members
Ocean City Aquatic & Fitness Center, 1735 Simpson Ave., Ocean City, 609-398-6900
Cost: Eight 30-minute group
lessons, $56 members/