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Long Island

Novice swimmer learns to 'love it'

Eileen Conneely, 64, of Huntington, pictured by Huntington

Eileen Conneely, 64, of Huntington, pictured by Huntington Harbor. Conneely overcame her fear of the water with swimming lessons. (May 29, 2010) Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Eileen Conneely of Huntington has never forgotten that time when, at 5 years old, she jumped into the deep end of the pool without a thought. A family member had to pull her out.

At 11, she remembers being pulled out by the tide at a local beach. A lifeguard came to her rescue. But she didn't tell her family about that incident. She didn't say a word until years later, when she told her husband, Tom.

I knew none of this history when Eileen and I met last year. She was a 63-year-old beginner in an adult swim class at the Huntington YMCA. And I was one of her swim instructors, newly certified.

On that first day, Eileen's hands shook as we readied to make our way across the pool. "I get so nervous," she told me.

But Conneely was a woman determined. And before the end of that first class, she told me why: "We used to have a pool in the backyard and I would play with the kids," she said. "But one summer they left to swim at the deep end and I was too scared to go with them."

She was determined not to have her grandchildren leave her for the deep end.

On Long Island, even before the start of this Memorial Day weekend, a Brooklyn teenager wading in the ocean off Long Beach was swept away by the waves, a Queens man disappeared off Jones Beach, and a 2-year-old drowned in a fenced-in backyard pool in West Babylon.

It makes for yet another tragic start to the summer season. And a time to repeat the importance of pool, beach and personal water safety. Rule No. 1: Learn to swim.

Conneely said she didn't think much about that as a child. As a mother, her own fear pushed her to make sure that her four sons took enough lessons to become proficient swimmers.

"They are all wonderful, wonderful swimmers," she said. "I made sure about that. We would go to the beach and I would be nervous, but I also knew that my children could swim."

Finally, she decided she'd had enough, and enrolled in a swim class.

She'd been working at it for almost a year when we met. Working, slowly and steadily, to conquer her fear.

Then she began to put her face in the water, and to move about five feet away from the pool wall.

By the end of the session, she was swimming, with the assistance of a small foam barbell, on her side from one end of the pool to the other.

Since then, she's become more comfortable getting into the waters of the Long Island Sound from the back of the family boat. She's been taking water exercise classes. "Sometimes I even go to the deep end, with the big kids," she said with a laugh. Eileen's also visited the Y's other pool, which has 9-foot-deep water.

"The water is so refreshing, so purifying," she said. "I love it."

Conneely is still taking swimming lessons - this time, she wants to perfect the art of floating on her back with no flotation aid.

"What happened with the grandkids?" I asked when I saw her recently.

"My granddaughter would only go into the deep end with me, she was only comfortable with me," Eileen said with a smile. "Then my son said, 'Oh, goodness, now I've got to watch out for two of them.' "

And that's as it should be.

On the beach. And in the backyard pool.

Eileen's determined to get even better. Which is a good thing, because she's got 12 grandchildren.

"I am so very proud of myself," she said.

And so is one of her many swim instructors.

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