Former Olympic Swimmer Helps Students Enjoy Benefits Of Water

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For someone afraid of water, an ideal Wednesday afternoon would perhaps not consist of swimming in it -- especially if the reward was watching oneself on videotape.

But on this particular Wednesday afternoon, floating in the Tonto Apache Gymnasium's pool, swam ex-Olympic swimmer Claudia Bullard's students. A great many of them said they took the class to drown their fear of water.

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With the ever present video camera in-hand, former Olympic swimmer Claudia Bullard instructs one of her students the proper method for breathing while swimming freestyle.

Fears are often easy enough to avoid.

But swimming, and the excellent workout it offers, can lure even those who fear it, Bullard said.

A girl from India, Meeva, was not present Wednesday but serves as the class' gold trophy story. She arrived "deathly afraid" of water," Bullard said. Five days later, she swam unassisted.

"She's on a vacation right now that involves a lot of water," Bullard said. An ocean, possibly. But now Meeva can swim.

Diane Frederick Bedsworth wants to swim for fitness. "I think it's a great exercise."

Though Frederick Bedsworth took lessons as a child, she too feared the great liquid.

"I go out on our canoe with my husband and I wanted to feel more comfortable," she said.

Others in the class arrived wanting to perfect their technique. An already avid swimmer, Tom Schmidt likes to surf in Mexico and Hawaii. He named the crawl -- a freestyle-esque stroke -- as his favorite.

"None of them are champion swimmers, but they're all looking to perfect something," said Cece Rogge, peering out underneath a gold swim cap. Her quest to perfection focuses on freestyle. "I could never get my breathing and kicking."

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Claudia Bullard shows a student how she looks in the water and what she is doing right and wrong during class last week.

Combining the various experience levels creates a challenge for Bullard, who must teach to all.

A video camera offers instantaneous feedback. Students watch themselves on film, see what they do right and what needs changing. That's Wednesdays.

On Mondays Bullard swims alongside her students.

"I love water. I'm not a bit afraid," said Margie, who requested her last name not be used. She learned in swimming holes, but never how to breathe underwater. Therein lies Margie's challenge.

"I'm sort of claustrophobic. I don't like my face covered," she said.

Bullard said the more advanced students in her class help those who need it.

"Keep your mouth shut. Then you have to breathe through your nose," Co, who also declined to provide her last name, advised Margie.

This semester is Bullard's first teaching swimming, but she said Gila Community College, which offers the class, has expressed interest in continuing.

"Most of (the students) are older. The older we get, we want to find ways we can exercise and feel good," Bullard said, explaining why her students seem interested in facing their fears instead of avoiding them.

Some exercises, as one ages, don't feel good, she said.

Bullard, who at 14, swam the butterfly in the 1964 Olympics, failed her first swim class.

Afflicted with severe asthma -- her first three years of life were spent flitting in and out of the hospital in a literal bubble -- her parents moved from Iowa to Phoenix after the doctors told them the dry air could help.

The doctors also said swimming might mitigate Bullard's asthma attacks, and at 8 years old, into the deep she went. But she panicked.

A panicked swimmer is not a good swimmer. She continued casually, and at 10 years old a coach spotted Bullard in the pool and thought she had potential.

Buoyancy is often a good indication, Bullard said.

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Another student listens as Claudia explains a swimming technique.

She credits that coach with teaching her to relax.

At age 14, Bullard won fourth place in the Olympics. She went on to swim competitively at Arizona State University, where the team won championships each of the four years Bullard attended.

"It wasn't all me," she said. The college recruited heavily during that time, and Bullard said their swim team is still excellent.

She studied physical education and English, taught after graduation, and eventually turned to school administration until 2005 when she "retired."

Bullard now teaches both English and swimming.

And while she takes preventive medication, her asthma no longer troubles her.

"I hike, bike, swim, and I don't ever feel like I have asthma," Bullard said.

"I think swimming is one of those things doctors recommend for a lot of things." Even, perhaps, fear of water.

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