Donna McIntosh spends so much time at the hotel pool, some of her younger students think she lives there.
McIntosh teaches lessons at the Holiday Inn Express in Alpharetta every day but Sunday. She keeps a purple suitcase with her, in case she’s too tired to drive home after a long day of classes.
Her life revolves around swimming. She’s the former director of the Dynamo swim school in Chamblee, one of the nation’s premier swimming clubs. One of her former students made it to the Olympic trials this year. Through the years, she guesses there have been others. Two of her three children are swimming instructors.
With a wet auburn ponytail, and towel draped over her petite frame, the blue-eyed woman from Cumming calls pools her “happy place.”
But getting to this place followed terrifying moments in water, and in life.
Few people know that McIntosh, a leader in the Atlanta swimming community, almost drowned as a teenager in rural Mississippi, sinking to the bottom of a muddy stream. A relative saved her life, but the panic took hold of her young life and nearly wouldn’t let go.
For most of her early life, she was so afraid of the water that she had difficulty showering.
Some people fear the edge of a cliff or the confines of an elevator. For McIntosh, it was anything to do with water. Even now, panic can set in if a student in the pool playfully pushes her head beneath the surface.
McIntosh learned to swim at age 35. The fear of water and the panic she experienced around it became her personal Everest. After years of running away, she resolved to conquer the fear that had defined her life for nearly 20 years.
She never could have imagined how successful she would be, and how facing the thing that frightened her the most would change her life — and even save her marriage.
McIntosh grew up poor in rural Mississippi. McIntosh’s father died when she was just 7 years old. Her house didn’t have running water or even a bathroom. Still, her mother, who only completed the ninth grade, raised her daughters to believe they could do just about anything — including play basketball and go to college.
At the same time, McIntosh’s mother taught her daughters to avoid bodies of water. She couldn’t swim, and she repeated the warnings often: Don’t go in the water. It’s dangerous. You can’t swim.
“All I learned about swimming was to be afraid,” McIntosh said.
But one sticky summer day, McIntosh couldn’t resist a cool dip in a nearby creek.
She was 15 and fearless. She wouldn’t push it. She’d get her feet wet, maybe let the water reach her waist.
As she stood on the edge of a Mississippi creek, so inviting with its promise of relief from the heat, she didn’t hesitate: She stepped in.
The creek closed over her head.
Lying motionless within arm’s length of the creek’s edge, she could have reached dry land and pulled herself out. But she didn’t. She froze. Her body sunk deeper.
She barely moved as she surfaced for a moment.
McIntosh held her breath, and went under the water again. Darkness surrounded her. I am dying, she thought.
McIntosh’s brother-in-law, Ricky Craft, a capable swimmer, was in the water a short distance away when he noticed McIntosh was in trouble.
“I was trying to help her and the water was over my head; and as I tried to help her, I felt like I was getting in trouble myself,” said Craft, some 40 years after the incident. “And then, I somehow managed to get underneath her and, it was almost an accident, but she was almost sitting on my shoulder, and I was able to get my feet down and push her out of the water.”
McIntosh gasped for air. She was alive.
Most people can survive only about two or three minutes of submersion. Drowning can happen very quickly. Without the constant flow of oxygen, people can lose consciousness, suffer brain damage — and die.
McIntosh was OK physically. But mentally?
Not long after Donna McIntosh married her husband, Michael, in 1978, they stayed at a hotel with a pool.
Michael McIntosh was surprised his wife didn’t just dive in. His wife’s reluctance didn’t seem to fit her feisty, high-energy personality. Though small in stature, she played basketball in college and preferred to play pickup games with men. She spoke her mind. She loved hiking and zip-lining and even mused about skydiving.
McIntosh thought he could teach his wife to swim. He moved his arms, kicked his legs and coaxed her to come in.
“I couldn’t move,” said McIntosh. “I wanted to slap him.”
Her husband soon realized he was ill-equipped to teach his bride to swim.
“I just thought you just jumped in and no big deal,” he said. “I didn’t appreciate what was going on in her head and in her heart.”
McIntosh hurried out of the water, her phobia unabated.
What her husband didn’t fully comprehend and what McIntosh herself was only coming to terms with was that her fears were larger than just water. They invaded other aspects of her life, too.
She learned that she was also petrified of darkness.
If she entered a dark room, and couldn’t find the light switch, she panicked.
She would always sleep on the side of the bed closest to the door.
When Christopher, her first son, was born McIntosh developed yet another anxiety: would she transfer her fear of the water to him? Would he live his life afraid of stepping into a swimming pool, or even taking a bath?
Whatever her own anxieties, McIntosh wanted to break the cycle in her family.
She wouldn’t tell her children about her near-drowning experience or about her water phobia.
Her children, she was sure of it, would learn to swim.
But she wasn’t sure about herself.
A fear overcome,a life unexpected
Every year, about 3,500 people (or about 10 a day), drown in the United States, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Drownings are the leading cause of injury death for young children ages 1 to 4. And for every child who drowns, another five receive emergency care for a near drowning, with many of these youngsters facing severe brain damage; some remain in a permanent vegetative state.
If a parent does not know how to swim, there is only a 13 percent chance that a child in that household will learn how to swim, according to one study.
McIntosh signed up Christopher for swim lessons when he was 3 years old at a friend’s day care in Lilburn.
At the pool, McIntosh stood behind the fence to watch the supervised lesson unfold.
And then she watched in horror as her son, fully-clothed, was tossed in the pool. He thrashed about.
“They threw my baby in the water,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it. It was so terrible. I was standing behind a fence that seemed 10 feet high and I couldn’t get to my baby.”
McIntosh didn’t realize her son was enrolled in a “water-survival program.”
Her son made it to the other side. But not without leaving him with a new fear of water.
A couple years later, when Christopher started kindergarten, McIntosh decided to try swimming lessons again.
But this time, she took the lead.
“I thought to myself: ‘How can I expect him to get in the water at 5 if I can’t at 35?’” said McIntosh.
When McIntosh spotted a swim school on her way home from school in Lilburn, she decided it was time.
She called the swim school and enrolled in twice-weekly private lessons.
“I just thought, I have to bite the bullet and do this,” she said. “And once I make up mind to do something, I just do it.”
But her resolve was tested immediately.
Just the thought of getting in a pool made her feel sick to her stomach. Trembling, she wouldn’t let the water go above her head. She clung to the instructor, terrified that she might somehow slip below the surface.
“I was just petrified that the instructor would not be able to keep me from drowning,” she said.
McIntosh’s swimming instructor, Henry Morrow, has taught thousands of people of all ages to swim. He remembers McIntosh well.
“She was scared to death,” said Morrow, who is now a swim coach in Kansas City, Kan., in a recent interview. “She was quivering and I knew it wasn’t because she was cold.”
Morrow knew the only way he could get McIntosh to swim was to get her to relax. It was a gradual process. First, he got her comfortable in the water, beginning with her feet and working up to her waist.
“She kept coming back,” he said. “Even though she was scared to death. It was something she kept trying and something she would learn to do. At first, she needed somebody to hold her because of her fear and gradually I pulled away, and it’s something she got a feel for, like riding a bike.”
In the pool, McIntosh learned she could contain her fear. She liked that the water was clear and that she could see the bottom. When she swam freestyle, she started in the deep end and swam to the shallow end, knowing if she got tired and needed a break, she’d be able to stand up in the water.
She floated on her back. She learned the breast stroke and then the butterfly. She took lessons for close to a year.
Her children joined swim teams at Dynamo Swim School. She was there so much, she took a job as a part-time receptionist.
McIntosh finds her place as a teacher
The job at Dynamo assumed greater urgency after her husband, Michael McIntosh, who had long suffered from depression, started to come undone in 1998.
A computer programmer with his own consulting firm, he’d travel out of state on assignments for weeks.
Donna McIntosh, who was home-schooling her kids, couldn’t reach her husband for days at a time. On multiple occasions, she had to travel to Mississippi and found him holed up in motels. He was getting nothing done, his mental state shifting wildly from the highs of mania to profound hopelessness.
Her family faced losing everything — including their house.
So in 1998, she approached her boss about teaching lessons.
She had long taken advantage of her time at the pools. She’d shadowed swim instructors. She became a certified lifeguard and had read every manual she could find.
Still, she was nervous about teaching others to swim. But she needed the money.
“From the very first day of teaching lessons, I felt like I had found my place,” said McIntosh who briefly taught science after college. “I felt like I had come home and I was doing what was meant to be.”
Gradually, she came to view the pool water not as something to be tolerated, but as something that made her feel good. She loved the feeling of buoyancy and weightlessness in the water.
She also loved the focus teaching swim lessons required. It allowed her to lock into something positive, while her husband struggled with mental illness.
She also had a career, a way to support her and her children. In 2000, McIntosh became the director of Dynamo’s swim school.
“All my life, I believe God puts things in our life to help us grow, or survive,” she said. “I am not sure I could have made it without swimming. I would have survived for my kids, but I would not have been the best mother without swimming.”
Her husband was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder and now takes medication for his condition.
He feels deep pain and regret when he thinks about what he put his family through.
“I see a lot of bad, but she is able to see all the good that came out of it,” said Michael McIntosh, who has since regained his mental health and returned several years ago to a job as a computer programmer.
McIntosh left Dynamo six years ago and now runs Swim with Donna Swim School. Many of her clients come to her to face their own fear of the water, while learning how to swim.
McIntosh has learned that the deepest fears never go away entirely. To this day, McIntosh herself remains averse to swimming in water that is dark or murky, such as lakes, the oceans — even the muddy streams of her childhood.
At the hotel pool in Alpharetta where she conducts her lessons, McIntosh tosses toys and dolls to make lessons fun for her younger students. She places orange sea creatures at the bottom of the pool to help remind children to take breaths while swimming freestyle. She pokes holes in pails and creates a waterfall effect to get kids comfortable with the sensation of water before getting them to put their heads under water.
McIntosh’s son, Andrew, recently turned to his mother for help teaching swimming lessons to a child with autism. The child was particularly averse to water getting in his ears, so he took it slow, singing songs, blowing bubbles. Before long, the child was enjoying the water and learning to swim.
“He now does backflips in the water,” he said.
Michael McIntosh said his wife develops a special bond with her students.
“They practically call her ‘Mama,’” he said.
McIntosh has also developed a special connection with adults who are afraid of the water and come to her later in life to learn how to swim.
Cherie Anderson, 51, had been fearful of water since she was 7. She resolved to overcome her fear in part so that she could enjoy water activities with her husband.
With nine lessons under her belt, Anderson has mastered getting in the water, floating on her back, and she’s learning how to freestyle. She said it’s a lot to focus on — kicking legs, taking breaths, turning her head. And she’s trying to have a sense of humor about it.
“It’s a good thing I don’t have to chew gum at the same time,” she joked.
McIntosh, now 59, is sometimes moved to tears when she talks about her students learning to swim.
And on a recent afternoon, she looked at the shimmering clear waters of a chlorinated pool, and smiled.
She has turned her greatest fear into an enduring source of comfort. As she slips into the water, she pauses and says, “It’s like my cocoon.”
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
Helena Oliviero first heard about Donna McIntosh’s journey to overcome a fear of swimming to eventually become a swimming instructor from a colleague whose daughter is taking lessons from McIntosh. Oliviero interviewed McIntosh several times, and spent hours with her at the hotel pool in Alpharetta. Oliviero also interviewed McIntosh’s husband, children, the instructor who taught her to swim when she was in her 30s, and some of McIntosh’s current and former students.
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