From a fear of drowning to a love of swimming

Natasha Ganesh smiles at the end of the Miracle Swimming Institute class. Photos by Rachel Hackney

Natasha Ganesh always had been wary of the water, she says, but as long as she could touch the bottom, she was OK.

Then came the day about 12 years ago, at a beach in the San Diego area. “I almost drowned in California,” she says.

The 20-year-old New Yorker was with family members when a rip current caught her. “Nobody in my family could get to me,” Ganesh says. “I was flailing and panicking. … I had no idea where the bottom was.”

A stranger who saw her struggling swam out to her and was able to pull her back to shore.

“I swallowed about a gallon of water,” Ganesh says.

“After that,” she adds, “the fear became sheer terror.”

About a year ago, Ganesh, who had moved to Sarasota, was reading the Pelican Press when she saw an article about Miracle Swimming Institute of Sarasota sponsoring its second contest to find the area resident most afraid of the water.

“It was literally about a month after I moved down here,” Ganesh says.

Melon Dash, president and founder of MSI, was offering the winner a free place in one of her classes designed to help even the most fearful person become safe in the water.

Dash is nationally known for her unique system that teaches people not only how to stay safe, but how to overcome their most deeply seated fears about being in the water.

She and the instructors she has certified have taught about 4,000 people since she established the program in 1983.

“I entered the contest,” Ganesh says, “[but I was] thinking, ‘I’ll never hear from them.’”

Therefore, Ganesh says, she was surprised to get a call from Dash in July. Ganesh had placed second in the contest, and Dash couldn’t reach the winner. If Ganesh was still interested in lessons, Dash welcomed her to join a class.

Ganesh was unable to take time off from work in 2011, she says, but this year, she put her name down for the class scheduled June 1-5 at the Helmsley Sandcastle on Lido Key.

“I came here with all types of butterflies in my stomach,” Ganesh says. “It has been absolutely amazing,” she adds with a smile.

Miracle Swimming system

Ganesh swims in the deep end at the hotel pool.

Dash opens each class with students introducing themselves and explaining what happened to create their fear of the water. Then she takes out a small white board and starts drawing stick figures.

With her simple but clear illustration of a stick figure enclosed in a circle, she explains to the students the principle of staying “in their bodies.” That stick figure represents someone who is calm and feeling a strong sense of control, Dash points out.

A feeling of mild nervousness is represented by the stick figure having moved slightly out of the circle. As a person becomes more frightened and more agitated, she explains, the person moves further away from that centeredness, and the circle.

Dash’s fifth illustration shows the circle above the stick figure. At that point, the person is panicking, just as Ganesh was that day at the Southern California beach.

The goal, Dash tells each student, is to stay within yourself, to stay in that first circle.

As Dash and her team of spotters work with the students, they help them progress from early exercises, such as walking in shallow water with their hands touching the wall of the pool, to being able to dive and swim with absolute ease.

If at any point a student feels uncomfortable, Dash works with the person to talk through what happened, to enable the student to feel confident again.

Starting out

On June 1, Ganesh says, “I stayed very, very far away from that black line,” referring to the painted line separating the shallow and deep ends of the hotel pool in which Dash was teaching the class.

“I called it the ‘no fly zone,’” Ganesh says with a laugh.

In fact, Ganesh notes, when she was filling out the questionnaire Dash had distributed to all of the students the first day of class, she checked the box indicating her belief that the class would work for the other people, but not for her.

Yet, on June 2, Ganesh says, “I was in the deep end, because I wanted to be.”

Class finale

On June 5, Dash asked late in the final class session if anyone wanted to venture into the deep end. Ganesh was among those who didn’t hesitate.

Ganesh executes a 'dolphin dive' in the deep end.

Within minutes, Ganesh had executed the first of numerous “dolphin dives,” doing just what the phrase describes: diving into the water headfirst, with her feet rising up into the air, like a dolphin’s tail.

“That’s great,” Dash told her.

Later, after another dive in the deep end — where the maximum depth was 8 feet, 6 inches — Ganesh announced, “I touched bottom. Oh, that was cool!”

A changed outlook

Last summer, Ganesh told the News Leader, she ran a summer camp, but she couldn’t take the children to the beach: She would have been helpless if one of them had begun to struggle in the Gulf of Mexico.

As she does at the end of every class, with every student, Melon Dash (left) presents a swimmer's medal to Ganesh. Dash uses medals she has won in competitive events, as well as medals donated by other swimmers. At right is Carol Stine of Austin, Texas, one of Dash's assistants for the class.

And if anything bad had happened, she said she knew “I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”

At the end of the class at the Helmsley Sandcastle, as Dash was recording comments for future students from each of the current participants, Ganesh looked at the camera and said, “Stop thinking about [the class] and take it. … You’ll be so happy you did. It’ll change the rest of your life.”

“This will not be the last class I take with her,” Ganesh told the News Leader. “It really has been life-changing.”