Staying Afloat

My reflection on overcoming traumatic water experiences and learning how to swim as an adult. With tips for those beginning their own journey in comments!

Patrick Lin
8 min readApr 23, 2021
My lifelong nemesis: water. Photo taken at Red Sand Beach, Maui.


The way I recall the story is that at age 9, I was on a water slide school field trip having fun hurtling down a nearly vertical tube, until I wasn’t. The pool couldn’t have been more than ten feet deep, but it might have just as well been the ocean to me. I was submerged for probably less than 20 seconds, but it felt like an eternity in an infinitely deep, dark abyss. After so many years, I honestly can’t say if it was my really friend who dragged me out, if the lifeguard was actually negligent, or if I just perceived it that way because I felt so abandoned in the water. But what did stick with me were the feelings from that experience: the fear of total helplessness, the shame of being the only kid who couldn’t swim. I sat alone on a bench for the rest of the trip, listening to the din of jubilant laughter and splashing from afar.

That panic of being submerged underwater followed me. My inability to swim has always been my greatest insecurity, one that has taken the better part of my life to overcome. My parents had never taught me to swim early on, and only put me in group lessons at the age of 12. On the first day the instructor, a 14-year-old swim team member, asked my age and was shocked, commenting that she had never taught someone ‘so old’ before. The two other students were boys around 6 who had never been in water prior to the class. By the end of the few weeks, they were joyfully diving into the deep end while I clung desperately to the edge, still not even able to float. The experience was simple affirmation that I had missed my chance to learn and just wasn’t cut out for water.

I managed to avoid swimming for a long time after that, staying ashore whenever possible. I’d regularly have to repeat that yes, I really couldn’t even float, let alone swim, but politely declining invites was easier than diving into my childhood trauma or demonstrating my brick-like nature. Most people wouldn’t push me on this, but most also took their ability for granted. Surely anyone could at least doggy paddle? My dad, however, always was always disdainful and would say I was needlessly scared of a simple task, regularly reminding me how kids in his hometown village would get thrown into a deep lake, ‘drink some water,’ and then figure it out. As much as I wanted to just ‘not be afraid’, this commentary never helped.

It wasn’t until 2016 that a very well-intentioned friend took me to a water park to learn. I was apprehensive, but she had competitively swam and lifeguarded, so I figured nothing could go wrong. After splashing about in the wave pool, she prodded me to try out a water slide again, insisting that I was really young when I had my experience and this time would be fine. That could not have been further from the truth.

As I hurtled down the first half of the several hundred-foot drop, my mind quickly shifted from ‘hey this isn’t so bad’ to sheer terror as I realized the speed with which I’d be hurled underwater. I was exactly like that 9-year-old boy again. Darkness, thrashing, and futile cries for help. Then the dead silence of onlookers as I was finally dragged out. The lifeguard, clearly embarrassed I had been submerged so long under her watch, protested to my friend ‘I thought you said he could swim!’ I stormed away as she faltered ‘he can…’ She had probably told the lifeguard to hold off, expecting me to resurface on my own with some latent swimming ability. Well, clearly she was wrong. I buried my unbearable shame with fury, at my friend for pressuring me, but mostly at myself for being deluded enough to think this time would’ve been different. That night was one of the last times I remember intensely crying, like really ugly sobbing to myself, hating myself for being just as pathetic and humiliated after 15 years.

Diving into the Deep End

After getting over my self-pity, I spent a weekend trying to practice with my friend at my parents’ pool, but quickly lost interest. I had no faith that I’d ever learn.

This cycle of brazenly attempting a water activity and retriggering myself with a submersion unfortunately wasn’t over just yet. While in Oahu for a work trip, I became overzealous, equipped with a snorkel and flippers for the first time, and pushed my snorkeling group further out into the reef. My friends were swimming ahead and didn’t notice when I stopped to empty some water out of my goggles and was subsequently knocked underwater by a large wave (turning your back to the ocean — big noob mistake). The water was clear and couldn’t have been more than 10 feet deep, but the moment I felt water filling my nose and mouth, my amygdala triggered that all too familiar panic. There was no chance of rationalizing out of my thrashing. I’m not sure what would’ve happened if a coworker swimming nearby hadn’t dragged me back to shore.

This experience finally spurred me to try group lessons at SF Parks and Rec. But I made painfully slow progress even after repeating the level one class. Why was it so hard to learn? My second teacher was terrible and would make up drills for us, then walk away without providing any guidance. And I honestly hated the water’s assault on my senses — the blurry vision, inability to hear or speak, chlorine burning my nose, and the loss of any proprioception. But the biggest barrier was simply because I was frustrated by my lack of ability. I was embarrassed of being a typically athletic, composed adult who floundered and gasped for breath like a drowning animal in 4 feet of water. Jealous that my friend who started beginner classes with me quickly graduated to the full lap pool while I continued splashing next to 3 year-olds. Annoyed that my ability to quickly pick up technique in other activities I did — yoga, martial arts, snowboarding, hell, even flying trapeze — just didn’t happen in the water.

By the end, I sort of learned basic freestyle, using all my effort to muscle my way through holding my breath from one side of the kiddie pool to the other. But this frustration dampened my motivation and I never practiced outside of lessons, still convinced I just wasn’t built for water.


The turnaround point for me came during my 2019 sabbatical. I was in Lan Ha Bay, Vietnam on a private boat tour and we had stopped at a scenic spot for lunch. All of my newly-made travel friends took turns backflipping off the side and happily floated in the clear, aqua ocean, backdropped by picturesque limestone karsts. As I stood on the deck, steeping in FOMO and resisting their siren calls to jump in under the pretense of a scraped knee, I thought about what it would take for me to someday not have to sit out. Was I really just ‘not a water person,’ or was I just making self-limiting excuses? Had I really actually tried to learn? It helped that I had started taking ownership of my goals during that period of quarter-life existential angst. I realized that just a few months prior, I had been just as unsure about solo backpacking abroad or publishing my writing, but as soon as I overcame my own internal saboteurs, I made it happen.

Not pictured: me with my FOMO

So I resolved to swim more deliberately in 2020, and more importantly practice more self-compassion with myself and my past experiences. I started lessons at the YMCA in January, and instead of putting in the bare minimum of two lessons a week, practiced after every class and on off days. It helped that I had a better instructor and friends taking classes at the same time to share the experience. After the COVID shutdown, I moved back to my parents’ place in the summer and cleaned up our outdoor pool so I could continue swimming.

There I initially swam with trepidation — our pool was up to 10 feet deep, dark and I still couldn’t tread or reliably breathe when swimming freestyle. One time, I reached for the edge to catch a breath, miscalculated how far I was, and sank into the depth. In that all-too-familiar moment, I looked desperately at my dad gardening in the corner of the yard before going under, expecting him to dive in and pull me out. But the next time I was able to thrash up for a gasping breath and a mouthful of water, he just stood at the side. I distinctly remember thinking ‘Jesus, is he just gonna watch me drown’ before I surfaced again and instinctively went to back float. Spitting out the rest of the water I glared indignantly at him for not lifting a finger, but he simply smiled and just said ‘see, I told you you can swim’. I was shaken, but realized he was right. As much as I disagreed with his oft-cited philosophy of teaching kids by throwing them into the deep end, I had to admit that getting myself out of that situation instead of being dragged out was a testament to the progress I made.

Since then, I’ve taken a Total Immersion workshop, a swimming method popularized by Tim Ferriss. This corrected many misunderstandings I had about freestyle form, teaching me how to balance my body in the water rather than compensating for ‘heavy legs’ by kicking like a madman and exhausting myself.

But the biggest opportunity by far was the privilege of island-hopping across Hawaii for almost three months this winter. With warm, swimmable beaches all around, I was able to acclimate to open water and found constant motivation to practice. When you’re in tropical paradise surrounded by water activities, you really have no excuses!

But by no means was this some happy ending where I mastered swimming though. Progress was still slow, I’d be anxious in deep or murky water without a snorkel, and my breath timing definitely needed work. But I also celebrated the small wins — graduating from the walled Waikiki shallows to open beaches, learning breaststroke, and successfully snorkeling beautiful reefs (without drowning yay), all with tons of support from my girlfriend. I learned to not just stay afloat and survive, but actually look forward to gliding with the currents, watching fish dart among rocks, or just exercising (especially since I’m gonna be old and blow out my knees soon). Despite all the mishaps along the way, I’ve proven to myself that I can overcome this lifelong insecurity and commit to improving.

One of the nicest snorkeling beaches we visited on Kauai!



Patrick Lin

Often wandering and wondering. Personal musings on identity, philosophy, and travels. Photography and more at