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MIT student blogger Emad T. '14

Defying That Sinking Feeling by Emad T. '14

On learning to swim and envisioning success

On my application for MIT, I made it a point to mention that I couldn’t swim. Not because I wanted to come off as that kid who had done well in AP classes and participated in extracurriculars but still didn’t know something incredibly basic, but because I saw an opportunity that people talk about in the college process, but leave in the theoretical domain.

I’m talking about an opportunity for personal growth.

It’s the big selling point of college: the assertion that, if you attend any college, you’ll be immersed in experiences beyond compare, and that’ll be all the justification you need for shelling out something on the order of (tens of) thousands of dollars each year.

I mean, never mind the fact that the set of marketable skills you acquire from college to land a job constitutes a good return on your investment. That’s great. But money can’t just buy integrity. Money can’t buy a pivotal moment to crush to smithereens your bad habits and rebuild new ones. Money can’t purge your fears out of you. That’s a function of how far you want every dollar that you spend to go.

To get my money’s worth, I learned to swim, because I wanted to conquer my fear of drowning – in both the literal and metaphorical senses – along with the related fears of the water, of too much work, of being overwhelmed. I came into class with that single objective, but I came out wiser in other ways.

I’m talking about serious life lessons. Not all of them translate well to academic advice, but they’re a good start. So without further ado, let me share some widely-applicable knowledge I gained from learning to swim:

    • Get comfortable and acclimated; try not to panic.My classes began with absolutely no swimming at all. Not even floating. Just bobbing up and down in the water. My classmates and I were in a pool shallow enough to keep our torsos comfortably above water, unless we made the decision to bend our knees and take a dunk.

      I remember my body being a quivering mess the first time we had to do that, and not because the water was cold. Well, it was a little cold, but the rest of my movement was all part of this trembling, nervous reflex.

      Why? I was in the middle of water, with the rational side of me giving way to trepidation. The bad feeling of water possibly getting in my ears, in my nose, everywhere – that’s all I could focus on.

      But I did it anyway. I bobbed up and down once – and I think I did it wrong the first time. As I submerged my head, my nostrils burned a bit, and in a panic I opened my mouth. I quickly leaped out of the water, my lungs heaving as I coughed the water out.

      Unpleasant? Yes. But then I asked myself: could it get any worse? And I had to admit that no, it couldn’t. That was the worst of it. But I wasn’t done yet.

    • If you struggle and get too tense, you sink. Just float – stay relaxed – but propel yourself along.
      The secret to floating, as you may know, lies in relaxation. “Treat the water like a bed,” one classmate told me, when we had moved on to floating on our backs. 

      Okay, I thought, but this isn’t even a water bed. This is all water, no bed. No mattress. No solid component to this whole system besides me. It didn’t help that previous experiments of mine suggested that I was much more dense than water.

      Though in retrospect, maybe my first swim instructor got it wrong. A memory from back when I was five or so has me at some pool somewhere – I don’t remember where – with my instructor supporting me on top of the water with his hand.

      “When I let go,” he said, “I just want you to relax. Relax, and you’ll float.”

      I got myself relaxed. He let go. And I fell like an anchor.

      In swim class I realized that floating on your back gets difficult if you’re not in motion. Your legs sink, and when that happens, you start to droop. Thrashing to get yourself realigned isn’t going to help – that goes against the whole panicking thing – but you sure can’t expect to cross a body of water without doing any work at all.

    • There’s no need to wear yourself out.
      There were a few common refrains in my swimming class: “Swimming isn’t about holding your breath.” “If you keep on sinking a little bit with each stroke you make, you’ll have to work that much harder to get up to the surface, and that’s really inefficient.” “Don’t wait until you’re almost out of breath to breathe – breathe when you need to.” 

      That’s all common sense, but it was surprising how easily some of my classmates and I momentarily disregarded that advice. Personally speaking, maybe it’s because I’m used to getting stuff immediately. Maybe it feels like a herculean task and an incredibly gratifying challenge. But is it sustainable to undertake it all the time?

      What I really mean to say is that it’s probably possible to do every p-set here at entirely the last minute, forgo sleep, and wax rhapsodic when you talk about your epic tales of slaving away through the night, aided only by a can or so of Monster or Red Bull.

      But geez, why would you? You just crash when you’re done; you also get some well-earned sleep, to be sure, but it’s a little masochistic.



Before anyone who knows me at MIT calls me out on that last one, though, I have a perfectly justified defense: growing and improving is a gradual, human process where you’ll still make mistakes. Given that, you might as well act boldly to get the best results.

To that end, the last day of my swimming class ended with the opportunity to do anything that you were comfortable with, up to and including diving into a pool measuring nearly 14 feet at its deepest end. I joined my other classmates in stepping up to that challenge. It was just a small jump right at the pool’s edge, but hitting the water, with every intent of going as far down as possible, seemed symbolic of a fear – and a personal record – being broken.

So I guess while it’s fair to consider the MIT experience to be like drinking from a fire hose, I feel that, about seven weeks in, it’s a bit more like learning how to swim. You can cling for dear life to the pool’s edge, but the inviting depth of the water – the experiences you’ll end up missing out on – will taunt you until you turn around and dive in. And while there is more pressure the deeper you go, you’ll never know what you can accomplish until you push yourself.

That means defying the sinking feeling you’re bound to feel from being in a place where the surface isn’t quite as close as you’d like it to be. That means ignoring the fear, rising above the anxiety, breaking through the uncertainty, and, with much focus and faith, discovering that you made it, as you’ve always been able to all along.

And that’s MIT, an uncomfortable place by necessity. How else could you start to grow?

10 responses to “Defying That Sinking Feeling”

  1. Justin says:

    Excellent, excellent insights. =)

  2. Austin' 15? says:

    I like the way you laid out this post. I thought it was neat how you started with learning to swim and related it back to MIT
    I cannot swim either, but I am sure I can learn smile

  3. Jessica says:

    Congrats on learning to swim! If I ever get accepted into the Institute I may choose to learn how to ride a bike.

  4. Becca H. '12 says:

    If you come to MIT, you’ll have to learn how to swim in order to graduate. It is a great life skill though.

  5. KP says:

    you aren’t alone. i dont know how to swim either.

  6. DJ says:

    Excellent blog post! I really enjoyed it!

  7. Billy says:

    Bravo! This post is extremely well-written! I love it smile

  8. Epic Post brah!….your application essay must o been awesome

  9. Anonymous says:

    Great post. I learned how to swim pretty late, when I was 12, and ended up swimming hardcore competitively for about 4 years before quitting due to massive burnout… so I have to say, swimming is hard. Really hard. You should feel proud of yourself for learning how.

  10. Asmaa france says:

    you aren’t alone dear EMAD, me too i don’t know how to swim but if i will be accepted their ( i mean at IMT) believe me i can swim like a DUCK :p lol ,and of course nothing is difficult to those who have the will …..