ALTS lessons help police officer overcome childhood fear of water
Mark Mask spent five years on the SWAT team of the Mesa, Ariz., police department. Every year, for training, he was required to put on full uniform, including a heavy vest and helmet, and jump into 8 feet of water.
Weighed down with 30 pounds of gear, he’d sink straight to the bottom.
“Some guys, they love water-training day,” Mask, 42, says. “Me, I hated it. No. 1, it terrified me. No. 2, I was the whipping boy the whole day.”
Mask had tubes in his ears as a child growing up in Florida. Doctors told him not to go underwater, but occasionally he did, and he suffered severe ear infections. The experience kept him from learning to swim when he was young, and the pain associated with the burning medicine that was dripped down his ear canals resulted in fear and aversion of the water.
He was a beach kid who kept his head dry.
As an adult, Mask wanted to join the army, so he had surgery at age 23 to repair his eardrums. As an infantryman, he didn’t need to know how to swim, but he had rivers to cross and fellow soldiers who made fun of him.
“I got made fun of my whole life. Being from Florida and not being able to swim, it’s pretty embarrassing,” Mask says.
If only those people who made fun of him could see him now.
In April, Mask took part in a USMS Swimming Saves Lives Foundation adult learn-to-swim lessons program in Mesa, Ariz. His instructor, Laura Smith, 52, has nothing but praise for his effort, which led to him submerging and swimming by his seventh lesson.
“He’s a macho guy, and this is a big deal,” says Smith, co-owner of the Mesa Aquatics Club and a U.S. Masters Swimming–certified ALTS instructor. “He is swimming. He has to stop and stand up to breathe, but we’ll work on that.”
Mask signed up for the lessons with his wife, Maria, 42, who also didn’t know how to swim but was comfortable in the water and was soon slowly crossing the pool. The couple’s children are competitive swimmers for Mesa Aquatics.
“They don’t like that we don’t know how to swim,” Maria says of the girls, ages 13 and 11. “They want to share [swimming] with us. They’re really happy for us to be taking the lessons.
“They are very amused with our stories when we come home from a lesson. I told them, ‘I swam three laps … in 30 minutes!’ My 11-year-old said, ‘Are you kidding me; is that a joke?’”
Both Maria and Mark want to swim for exercise, and Maria wants to join a Masters Swimming program.
“I wanted to join Masters even before I knew how to swim,” she says.
Smith calls Maria “a star,” and despite the gap in their learning curves, both Masks say learning to swim with their spouse was a good idea.
“I think we encourage each other,” Mark says. “If one of us is not super-excited about it, we can help each other. If I do something little, she’s proud of me. I think it’s a huge benefit to do it as a couple.”
Mark has some other advice, too, for anyone on the fence about learning to swim.
“Just get off your butt and do it. I sat on it for a long time. I am so mad that I waited so long,” he says.
Today, Mark is a K9 officer and doesn’t have to endure the SWAT water drills. His water training is now in nothing deeper than the dog’s height. His colleagues, though, still find ways to poke fun at his water anxiety, he says.
They won’t have much to tease before long. Mark puts his newfound water-comfort level at 7 out of 10.
Still, he says, “You gotta have a sense of humor. Or you won’t make it.”
- Adult Learn-to-Swim