Dr. Frank McGeorge learns to swim -- and you can too

Why he's finally taking the plunge

DETROIT -  It's been a secret our Dr. Frank McGeorge has shared with only a handful of people -- until now.

"I cannot swim, and I've always wanted to learn how to swim, and it's really been a source of embarrassment all my life," said McGeorge.  "I have done stories where I have told people that they need to learn how to swim, and how important it is to learn how to swim, knowing full well that I, myself, was not a swimmer."

He's far from alone.  A recent poll by the American Red Cross found that while 8 in 10 people feel confident that they can swim, less than half of those surveyed actually have the skills necessary to pass a basic swimming safety test.  A whopping 37 percent of adults can't swim the length of a typical pool.

Access An Issue

"In the city where I grew up, there were not a lot of pools available.  There wasn't a lot of opportunity to learn," said McGeorge about growing up in Chicago.  "My mom was a single parent, she was Chinese, so it may have been a cultural thing, but learning to swim, when I was a kid, was just never a priority."

Not that he hasn't tried to learn since.

"I can't even count the number of times I've tried to learn how to swim over the years," he said.  "I have tried to learn to swim dozens of times over the years.  And for whatever reason, I don't know if it's synchrony, or lack of it, buoyancy or a lack of it, I can't seem to get it right."

In spite of not being able to swim, McGeorge loves being near the water.  But he knows there's an added risk for him.

"Boating is an especially important part of my life because I enjoy fishing. I enjoy pulling my kids on a tube," he said.  "The simple fact is, if my boat were to tip over, or if something were to happen to my kids on the tube behind me, there's nothing that I can do to help. I would, frankly, drown."

That scenario is motivating him to take the plunge again.

"If something were to happen to my kids, and I were unable to help them or save them, that would actually be far worse than if something happened to me," he said.

To coach him along this time, McGeorge has a very special instructor -- Olympic swimmer Peter Vanderkaay.

Vanderkaay, a Rochester-native, is a three-time Olympian who brought home three gold medals and a bronze.  He's also an ambassador for Detroit Swims, a program through the Boll Family YMCA in Detroit that teaches inner city kids how to swim.

Drowning Is A Serious Problem

"It's a big problem in this country, it's the second leading cause of death among kids, accidental death, and if you're a minority, you're much more likely to be susceptible to drowning," said Vanderkaay.

That's also true for adults.

"I think with adults the biggest problem is they feel like they are too far along to learn it, so they don't want to try," said Vanderkaay.  "They've come their whole life without having to swim, and my message to them is to get out there and give it a try."

With that message in mind, Vanderkaay and McGeorge got to work at the Boll Family YMCA.

Learning how to swim is hard enough.  Learning how to swim with a TV crew following you is an added challenge.  


"I'm really worried that I'm going to make myself look stupid, or look like a fool because this is something that I've held as a little bit of a secret," he said.  "And going in the water with an Olympic swimmer, to learn how to swim, seems almost ridiculous to me."

Setting those worries aside, Vanderkaay quickly had McGeorge looking like a swimmer with goggles and a swim cap.

"Looking like a swimmer and swimming are two different things," he said.

McGeorge called Vanderkaay his "Zen master" of the water.

"When I talk about a feel for the water, it's kind of this abstract thought, but the more you do it the better you get," explained Vanderkaay.

First, they practiced putting their faces in the water.

They quickly progressed to kicking, a real challenge for McGeorge, who struggled to find his rhythm. It wasn't easy. But over a short time, he made real strides. 

"I hope no one peed in the water recently 'cause I just drank a whole bunch of it," coughed McGeorge.

But it was progress.

"When we first started, you were having a hard time getting your legs up, now your legs are up, you're turning your head to breathe and you're keeping that body position flat on the water," said Vanderkaay.  "That's a lot of progress."

The next day, McGeorge was back for more.  They tried treading water.

"Do you feel like you're ready to let your hands off the wall if I'm holding you?" asked Vanderkaay.

"Not at all," said McGeorge.

But he did.

After that, more kicking practice and some work on the breast stroke.  That one seemed to really click.

Then the moment arrived.  The grown-up pool beckoned, deep end and all.

"You want to try doing a whole 25?" Asked Vanderkaay.

And slowly, carefully, he swam the whole way.

"It wasn't quick and it wasn't graceful, but it was swimming not drowning," said McGeorge, looking proud and relieved.

There are more lessons to come, more strokes to learn, and confidence to build.  But it's a start.

"My biggest fear was that I would fail, but if I can learn anyone can," said McGeorge. "It's not just a matter of fun, it's a matter of safety.  And I think that's where it's really, really critical that the message get out, that you shouldn't be embarrassed, you shouldn't be afraid, and you should just learn. And that's what I'm really going to try to take to heart."

McGeorge is continuing to take swim lessons and plans to update Local 4 viewers on his progress.

"I'm hoping that I will learn how to swim, and actually, not just learn how to swim to save my life or to help someone else, but actually learn to swim to the point where I enjoy it.  That would be my perfect world ideal."

You can find out more about the  YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit on their website and learn about  their adult swim lessons as well as the Adult Swims program.  

If you're trying to learn to swim or learned as an adult, we want to hear your stories too.  Go to our Local 4 Facebook page and share what inspired you to finally take the plunge.


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