In Over My Head

A ‘60s-era student had to face her fears before she could graduate
Norma (MacLeod) Petersen
‘A small class was essential since I wanted to be certain someone saw me when I started to drown.’

As I turned the page of a WWU alumni publication, I stopped abruptly, unnerved by the photograph of Jim Lounsberry, a former Western football coach. At the sight of this imposing man, my hands began to perspire and my stomach started to churn. Suddenly, I was 18 again. Coach Lounsberry towered on the sideline ready to blow his whistle, beginning the worst nightmare of my freshman year.

I had begun freshman orientation with confidence, but on the last day, our senior guide announced that we would be required to pass a fitness assessment, including a swimming test.

“No one will graduate from Western without passing this test or satisfactorily completing a beginning swimming course,” he added. I was horrified. I hated water! I didn’t want it on my face, in my eyes or over my head. The situation was clearly hopeless. I would never graduate; I would never become a teacher. I would drown.

As the fall quarter of my freshman year came to a close, I decided I had better enroll in Beginning Swimming. After all it might take the remaining 11 quarters to pass the swimming test. I discovered Beginning Swimming was offered at 8 a.m. during winter quarter. This sounded ideal. Surely, not many would sign up for a class which would require them to wake up early on wintery mornings. And a small class was essential since I wanted to be certain someone saw me when I started to drown.

On the first day of class, I hesitantly left the dressing room and stared at the pool. It looked as large as a football field, which was appropriate since Coach Lounsberry was the instructor. Without my glasses, I was a prime example of sensory deprivation: I couldn’t see, my nose clip prevented me from smelling, and the mandatory bathing cap impaired my hearing. As I squinted at the figure on the edge of the pool, formidable in his khaki Bermuda shorts and matching shirt, it was clear I was going to do everything he ordered.

Coach Lounsberry’s first words were direct and to the point: “The strategy is simple. You can’t swim now, but by the end of the quarter, you will dive in, swim the length of the pool, and demonstrate a number of different strokes. If you do, you will earn an ‘A.’ If not, you will fail and retake the class.” Clearly, he had no idea of the enormity of what he was asking.

The first few days, I practiced jumping off a chair in my Higginson Hall dorm room just to find enough courage to jump into the pool. I submerged my face in the bathtub until I no longer panicked. I waded through snowdrifts at 7:30 in the morning, swallowed gallons of chlorinated water and smashed my head into the concrete side of the pool because I swam with my eyes shut.

But, incredibly, I began to learn how to swim. On the day of the final test, I dove in and using an odd combination of strokes, along with a great deal of just plain flailing, I made it to the end of the pool. The coach was a man of his word. When I ripped open the grade report for winter quarter, there it was – my first “A” ever in P.E.

Decades later, I sat next to another Western graduate at a meeting, and during our conversation we discovered that we had been in the same swimming class. Of course I hadn’t recognized her – I never saw anything clearly in that class without my glasses. I also learned that she had dropped out of the class after the first few days. In fact, she had never passed the swimming test at all. A week before she was to graduate, the head of the Physical Education department demanded she not be allowed to go through Commencement. In desperation, she pleaded with the Dean of Students, who waived the requirement. I was exasperated. Had I suffered all that torture for nothing?

Later that evening, I tried to sort out what I truly felt. I have honestly appreciated the ability to swim these many years – however ungracefully. I never would have learned how without the university’s insistence. Education justifiably includes both physical and mental challenges. My classmate confessed that finally, at the age of 40, she had been forced to take private lessons because her husband would not take her out in their sailboat until she did.

Maybe we never successfully evade the rules, just delay the inevitable consequences.

Norma (MacLeod) Petersen (’67, English- Secondary, Spanish-Secondary; ’68, M.A., English) taught high school English for 43 years in Quincy and now lives in Liberty Lake, where she enjoys swimming with her 4-year-old grandson.

The late Jim Lounsberry coached football, golf and track & field at Western while teaching in the Physical Education Department.