When Kelly Yuan chose a college 17 years ago, she was relieved her first choice didn’t require students to pass a swimming test.

She didn’t remember swimming as a child, when most people master the skill, and a bad experience swallowing pool water as a teen had left her with no desire to learn.

But now, at 34, she decided it was time to catch up. Yuan recently enrolled in an adult swimming class, joining other women between ages 28 and 63 at 7 a.m. every Sunday to learn the ways of the water.

With the erosion of swimming programs in public-school physical education classes over the past few decades, some adults are now trying to learn what they may have missed as a child, some swimming experts say. Adult swimming has become popular enough for New York’s 92nd Street Y to open a second beginners class on Thursday nights in 2004 and double enrollment, said aquatics director Lane Wineski. In New Orleans, some swimming instructors report an increase in adults learning how to swim after Hurricane Katrina.

Swimming instruction programs try to accommodate these adults’ special needs, offering adults-only classes and addressing the kinds of fears adults may bring to the water that kids don’t. Wineski said she receives up to a half-dozen calls per week from adults asking about swimming lessons. Most people worry they’ll be in a class with children.

“They feel they are the only ones who would be afraid to put their face in the water or not go into the deep end,” she said. “They’re embarrassed they don’t feel comfortable because they’re not 5 years old learning how to swim.”

Yuan’s instructor, Manny Tubens, said he takes a different approach with adults. He spends the first 10 minutes of the initial class telling them what to expect and building confidence for the fearful students.

“We walk around the pool in the shallow water. I tell them they can stay near the walls, and I’ll hold your hand,” he said. “I try to get them in the mood to relax.”

He said adults are more serious about swimming. “’They want to learn techniques, timing and breathing, where as the children they just want to splash around,” he said.

While he skips the games — such as singing “Ring Around the Rosie” to get the kids to dunk their heads under water — some of the tools are the similar. Adults and children use the same buoyant long noodles. He doesn’t give kickboards to children because they can slip off, but uses them with adults.

Kathryn Scott, director of physical education at the University of California at Berkeley, uses at least one game with adults — called rocks and corks — to explain the principals of buoyancy and the physics involved with swimming.

“The physiology is important,” said Scott, who helped review the Red Cross water safety instruction manual.

Tubens, who has taught swimming for more than 22 years, says he takes on grown-up fears head on. He taught one class at a YWCA in Midtown Manhattan called “Petrified People Don’t Sink.”

Tubens said he gives his students different options to make them feel comfortable.

“If they can’t swim across the pool, 10 or 15 feet, maybe they can walk across and use their arms,” he said.

It difficult for adults or even teens to learn to swim because they recognize the real dangers of water, said Allan Cassorla, a clinical psychologist and associate director of counseling and psychological services at Columbia University. He said children are often fearless.

“With adults, there is a greater degree of concern about safety and concerning one’s own mortality,” he said. “That increases as one gets older.”

Many public schools have eliminated swimming programs as part of physical education, as budget cuts reduce physical education classes, said John Leonard, executive director of the American Swimming Coaches Association in Fort Lauderdale.

“It’s been steadily occurring since the late ’60s and early ’70s, and it’s gotten worse and worse,” he said.

But a lot of kids continue to learn through private lessons. About the same percentage of kids are learning outside of school as has been the trend for the last few decades, he said. He estimated that 5 million Americans take swimming lessons annually, and about 98 percent are children. Adult lessons are on the rise, he said, but could not quantify a number.

Sometimes a particular event will trigger adults to learn.

In New Orleans, the southeast Louisiana chapter of the Red Cross reported 33 percent more adults signing up for swimming lessons in the year after Hurricane Katrina.

For example, at one class at Tulane University in 2005, 325 people participated; nine adults made up only 3 percent. This year, the total number was lower, only 170, but 38 adults learned, or 22 percent of the class, said Candis Patecek, director of health and safety for southeast Louisiana chapter.

“It says that adults want to learn how to swim,” she said. “What’s more amazing is that half of those were senior citizens 50 and older who never learned how to swim.”

Marilyn Gibson, 50, was determined to learn after Katrina, and signed up for free Red Cross lessons.

She, her two children and companion, Charles Briley, were trapped on the top of a two-story building during the hurricane and she was petrified to move. He created a raft and was able to push it while swimming and get the family to safety.

Gibson said wasn’t afraid of the water, but, “I just didn’t think it was necessary. I never thought this would happen,” she said. “I at least want to be able to save myself and the children.”

She said she now rates her ability as a 3.5 out of 10.

“I won’t panic in the water,” she said. “I know little techniques.”

Yuan, who said her aunt learned to swim in her 60s, is still a little anxious in the water, but is happy to be confronting her fears.

“After I finish swimming lessons, I’m going to take driving lessons,” she said.

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