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A Seattle Doctor’s Journey From Being Afraid In The Water To Becoming An Avid Swimmer

Ashley Gross
Dr. Kim Holland

This story originally aired on October 7, 2017.

Dr. Kim Holland emerged from the locker room at a pool in West Seattle on a recent Friday morning, suited up and ready to go. But she scanned the pool with a bit of dismay – no empty lanes.  

“It’s kind of hard because I don’t like it when there’s more than one person in a lap lane because then you’ve got to pay attention,” she said. “The lanes are too narrow.”

Nevertheless, she pulled on her bathing cap and goggles, staked out a lane and climbed in.

“Ooh, the water’s nice and warm,” Holland said. “This is amazing.”

She would not have been anywhere near the deep end of this pool just 10 years ago. Back then, she was mystified by people who were comfortable in the water – people who didn’t fear it like she did.

“I knew they knew something that I didn’t know, and I didn’t know how to get it,” she said.

Credit Ashley Gross / KNKX

A Background Of Civil Rights Activism

If you hear Holland’s background, it’s hard to imagine her being afraid of anything. She was born in 1954 in New York into a family of civil rights activists.

“My mother told me that my first marches were in Flushing, New York, when I was in my pram, my carriage, when I was two,” Holland said.

By the time she was a teenager, Holland was an activist in her own right. She protested racial and economic injustice and was drawn to the Black Panther Party and their message of self-defense against police brutality. She joined.

“These were people who it seemed to me were not willing to wait any longer for justice and for freedom, and were willing to be in the vanguard and step out and to risk their lives, and that’s how I felt,” she said.

So here’s a young, determined woman fighting for justice, taking part in protests, including one that turned violent. So you see? Not a fearful person. But learning to swim? That remained out of reach.

“I remember sitting on the edge of the pool and asking Jesus to help me not be afraid in the water,” she said. “Yeah. I remember loving the waves and being absolutely afraid, not like a panicky – just – I don’t know that I can swim. How will I get my air? How will I stay up?”

Her fear wasn’t unique. Segregation and racism made it difficult for many generations of African-Americans to learn to swim. A recent study said almost two-thirds of African-American kids have low or no swimming ability.

In Holland’s family, cost was a barrier.

“My memories of New York were that you had to have money to go swimming. We didn’t have very good means when we lived in New York. We lived in the projects,” she said. “I had a cousin who went to the Y and learned to swim. I did not have the availability of a swimming pool.”

A Near Tragedy

Her parents didn’t know how to swim, either. That almost led to tragedy at the beach one day when her brother got too deep.

“I remember all of us on the edge of the beach, waiting, wondering what would happen, really watching my brother struggle, and finally a guy who was a white guy swam out and got him and brought him back because none of the adults who were with us knew how to swim well enough to go out and get him,” Holland said.

As Holland grew up and became a mother and a doctor, she wanted to break that cycle. She made sure her daughters learned to swim. And then she became a grandmother and her grandsons really loved water parks, so she was inspired to try again. Her good friend Elizabeth encouraged her to take lessons and Holland found out about something called Miracle Swimming for Adults.

Melon Dash is the woman who created Miracle Swimming. She’s based in Sarasota, Florida, but there are swim schools across the country that teach the method, including Orca Swim School in Seattle, which offers pay-what-you-can lessons to Black/African-Americans and Native Americans.

(She’s used the name Melon, a nickname for Mary Ellen, ever since she was 11 years old. “I just go by it, even though people do a doubletake.”)

Miracle Swimming

The aim of Miracle Swimming is to teach swimming to adults who are afraid. Dash was teaching swimming to a group of college students in New Hampshire decades ago, when she realized the water terrified them.

“It was clear that they hadn’t been given the same steps that I had, which were playing,” she said. “It was playing in the water, it was spending every day in the summer from 11 am till 7 when the pool closed playing in the pool with my friends.”

So she started to develop a way to first get adults comfortable just being in the water. Dash came up with what she calls the five circles – a way to describe your mental and physical state. She uses pictures to illustrate. In the first circle, there’s a stick figure completely inside the circle.

“The first circle is centered and grounded, comfortable, calm, self-contained. That’s the perfect place to learn,” Dash said.

Credit photo courtesy of Melon Dash
Melon Dash

Each subsequent picture shows the stick figure more and more outside of the circle, and the person feels worse and worse.

“The fourth circle is terror, when we’re really so afraid that we can’t move anymore,” she said. “And that’s why we say in our everyday language that someone is `paralyzed by fear’ or `scared stiff.’”

Fifth circle is a terrible place to be. It’s utter panic. So she makes sure her students are always mentally in the first circle, totally comfortable, as they get used to things like putting their heads under the water.

Dash said learning how to swim is not about learning to do the crawl. It’s about learning to float and stay safe.

“Learning how to swim is overcoming fear and being able to be awake, alert and enthusiastic in deep water, with no qualms about being in deep water because you know you’re not going down,” she said. “You know the water holds you up or you know how to stay at the surface and get air when you want it and you know how to rest.”

Staying In The First Circle

Dr. Kim Holland overcame her fear and learned so well that she now sometimes swims in Puget Sound. But not just that – the idea of staying in the first circle gave her a new way of looking at the world. She said staying calm and centered has helped her deal with trauma from her past and also during this time of tense racial divisions that she says remind her of the 1960s.

As a way to help her patients and her community, once a week, she and her friend, Dr. Rosemary Agostini, lead something called Walk and Talk on Fridays in Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood. They invite their patients and local police officers to walk in a small park as a way to get exercise and get to know each other.

On a recent warm day, Holland showed up with bottles of water and fig bars, greeting everyone enthusiastically.

“My goodness, gracious me, are you here to walk with us? You are? Oh my word,” she said with a big smile to a group of women.  

She said exercise is good medicine and getting to know the police officers helps reduce tensions with law enforcement.

One of her patients, an older woman named Pearl Beamon, was there for the walk. I asked her about swimming, and she said she’s never gotten very comfortable in the water.

“I’ve tried but I don’t go swimming,” Beamon said. “I think if I go back to practice what I used to know, I could, but I don’t. I feel like I’m too old now.”

Holland told her it’s never too late to learn.

“There’s no reason why you couldn’t and you could float and you could do that until you go home to glory, you know?” she said with a laugh. “Because even if a person can’t walk, they can float, you know?”

Swimming As Mindfulness Practice

For Holland, swimming has now become something more than exercise. She also uses her time in the water to practice mindfulness. She does what she calls a body scan, concentrating on one part of her body for each lap.

“Up the toes, down the top of the foot, up the ankle, down the calf,” she said.

Being in the water – a place that used to provoke anxiety for her – is now a total freedom, something meditative, she said.

“Sometimes I’ll do loving kindness, so one lap will be loving kindness to me. Another lap will be loving kindness to my loved ones, or to people I don’t know,” she said. “One lap will be loving kindness to Donald Trump. What used to be loving kindness to Osama bin Laden. As Christians, we’re called to do good to those who harm us. It’s challenging work, but it needs to be done.”

It was challenging work to overcome her fear of water. But Holland said it started an odyssey for her – staying in the first circle, she said, has allowed her to be more authentic and present. And now she’d like to become a swim instructor to help everyone else feel that same way.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.

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