Spokane woman overcomes 50 years of fear, learns to swim

SPOKANE VALLEY, Wash - For 50 years, a Spokane Valley woman lived in fear of water. This spring, she's facing her fears and proving it's never too late to define who you are.

As a teenager, Kathy Peterman nearly drowned in a lake at summer camp in Montana. It's a fear she's carried with her for five decades. 

"I could not touch bottom," Peterman remembered. "It was terrifying. I knew I was in a lot of trouble. I was turning backwards and my brain was not right and I was swallowing water."

"I thought, this was it. I'm going to die."

She avoided water after that. The fear intensified when her brother ended his own life in a bathtub.

"I didn't even like taking a shower with the water in my face," Peterman said.

She brought her kids to swimming lessons as they grew up, hoping they would be able to help themselves if they ever got into trouble in the water. But, on family vacations, she barely dipped her toes in the water, carrying that fear into adulthood.

Earlier this year, she decided enough was enough. Thanks to the SilverSneakers program that gives those on Medicare access to fitness activities, she was able to walk into the Spokane Valley YMCA and sign up for swimming lessons.

The lessons started slowly, with an instructor named Pepper cradling Kathy in just a few inches of water. Slowly, she gained the courage to progress. From her toes to her hips to her shoulders, then - literally and figuratively - her head.

"[Pepper said] 'look in my eyes, it's all in your mind," Peterman said. "[She said] 'You don't have to be fearful of water, it's not going to hurt you."

Something clicked.

Watching Peterman in March, you could see the progress. She struggled to get the breaths right and was still nervous to venture too far into the deep end. But, she was there, every week. 

One Monday afternoon, her daughter from North Carolina came to watch.

"It makes me wonder what else she can do," Crystal Broadbent said, smiling with pride from the pool deck. "All these years that she's said 'I can't' - now she can say 'I can'." 

Fast-forward to May and you'll find Peterman swimming alone in the deep end, even diving in from the side. She went from being so scared of having water in her face that she wouldn't take a shower to doing somersaults in the pool for fun.

"I love water," Peterman said. "I couldn't say that before."

She feels comfortable now that if she got into deep water she could save herself. She knows that her story can inspire others that - no matter if you're five years old or 65 - it's never too late to overcome your fears.

If you or someone you know wants to learn to swim, the YMCA offers programs for adults. You can read more about their aquatics programs here.