As a teenager, Helen Monroe was pushed off a causeway by a friend who thought Monroe could swim.
For 50 years, she avoided the beach.
Then a church announcement on swim lessons for people afraid of the water piqued her curiosity. Could this great-grandmother learn to swim?
Monroe, 69, of Largo joined the Ladies of the Ridgecrest Community Swim Class at the YMCA of the Suncoast — Greater Ridgecrest Branch. Now she swims half the 75-foot pool.
"At first, I was scared," Monroe said. "Now I want to encourage older ladies to take the class."
Word of mouth and an earlier Largo Times story helped increase average enrollment in the class from nine to 23.
Swim instructor Vic Wickman, who says God has blessed him with a gift to work with those afraid of the water, teaches more than swimming. He helps people find joy.
Learning to swim correctly was actually a dream come true for Bopha Suy of Largo. After swallowing water each time she attempted, fear kept her landlocked.
"First class, amazing," said Suy, 56. "Fantastic. Awesome."
She said she held her head down, breathed and kept her face in the water. She said she was proud of herself and thanked her teachers. "I am very happy," she said.
Toni Shepard, another Largo woman, joined after seeing the story in the paper.
Shepard, 65, said the teacher made the class not scary.
"Everybody motivates everybody," said Shepard, who was floating and doing many strokes after seven lessons.
Shepard's husband, Bobby, 66, volunteers with Wickman.
"I enjoy seeing smiles on the women's faces when they conquer their fears," Bobby Shepard said.
Gladys Clark, also of Largo, wanted to swim and now she can.
"I feel comfortable in the water now," said Clark, 63. "I've learned to breathe underwater and can float."
Colleen Sloane-Seale, 45, of Largo always feared the water, but thought Wickman's class might be a perfect fit.
"Once you've learned the breathing techniques, once you've learned to blow bubbles underwater," Sloane-Seale said. "Your fear isn't as elevated."
Sylvia Wickman, the instructor's wife of 45 years, has helped from Day One. She and Bobby Shepard add a level of comfort and support for members with pre-existing health issues who could not imagine learning to swim.
Shirley Cadle, 62, is deaf and has Ménière's disease, an abnormality of the inner ear causing a host of symptoms, including vertigo or severe dizziness, tinnitus or a roaring sound in the ears, and the sensation of pressure or pain in the affected ear.
A newer member, Cadle travels to Largo from the Hudson area.
"My doctor said swimming was good therapy," Cadle said.
It has worked for Stephanie Johnson, 25, of Largo, who first arrived for class with oxygen.
Diagnosed with asthma and myasthenia gravis, a disease characterized by progressive weakness and exhaustibility, Johnson worried about putting her head under water.
"The more I use my muscles, the weaker they get," Johnson said. "I wanted to overcome my fear. Don't doubt until you try. You may grow to love what you fear and find a way to work around your illness instead of working with it."
Davida Wilson, 34, also of Largo, understands. For years, she couldn't enter the water. Catheters implanted as part of kidney failure treatment kept her on dry land. With a new type of treatment, she's able to go without the catheters and she wanted to swim.
"My goal's swimming in the 6-foot end," said Wilson. "Six lessons and I can float and do the backstroke."
Having so many hydrophobic people in the pool at once concerned lifeguard Derek Merritt, 17, of Largo at first.
"Normally, that would make it hard for a lifeguard," he said. "But they learned to swim right away."
Vangie Hanson, 70, of Largo told her friends everyone should learn to swim by age 71.
"That gave me a year to learn," said Hanson, who had a frightening experience in North Dakota waters when she was young.
"Everyone should take a class — even if they can swim — just to make sure they're swimming correctly," said Yvonne Kier of Largo, who declined to give her age.
She wanted to do something she'd never done before, but was petrified of the water and skeptical of her ability to learn to swim.
"I've always been self-confident, but I didn't think I could do this," Kier said.
Wickman, who volunteers his time to assure his students are successful, proudly describes the women's accomplishments.
"They have overcome their fear of the water," Wickman said. "Some swim the length of the pool or cross from corner to corner. They've mastered strokes and learned survival techniques. Because of those accomplishments, they've boosted their self-esteem and confidence in and out of the water."
The class was scheduled to end Aug. 19.
But Wickman said, "The ladies are so fired up. They come early to practice and didn't want class to end."
So it won't.
Prior commitments will have Wickman missing some lessons, but the YMCA will keep the class open-ended.
"Which means," Wickman said, "the ladies will continue virtually taking over the pool from 6 to 8 on Monday and Wednesday evenings."