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Diving in with Melon Dash

The miracle technique that finally gets adults to the deep end

I stood in a hotel pool in Sarasota, Florida, about to put my face in the water. I was taking the first step in overcoming a lifelong fear of being in water over my head. I hated the roar of it rushing into my ears and then, that silence—it felt like being buried alive.

It was day one of a five-day intensive beginner course with Miracle Swimming. Since 1983, founder Mary Ellen “Melon” Dash ’76 has preached a more compassionate, practical, and, above all, fun way for fearful adults like me to relax in the water. Over the next five days, I went from blinking back tears of fear to playing underwater games. This was both surprising and liberating, after a lifetime of poolside terror.

As a traditional water safety instructor, Dash noticed many students in her beginner classes were so gripped with fear they couldn’t move past standing in the pool, no matter how she tried to help. For the first time, she questioned the methods she had learned in her training.

“It’s not their fault. It’s mine,” she recalls thinking at the time. “They want to learn. I’m not meeting them where they are.” So, she launched Miracle Swimming.

For Dash, who has been in the water all her life, it must have taken a huge act of imagination and empathy to address the panic she saw in her students. Dash captained the swim team at UMass, setting New England records while she worked toward her degree in exercise physiology and nutrition.

About half of American adults can’t swim.
Dash is changing that, one swimmer at a time.

Miracle Swimming, the method that Dash developed, is based on what she calls The Five Circles, or stages of fear—ease, cold feet, fluttery tummy, heart in your mouth, and panic—a learning model that puts mental and spiritual presence, not physical action, at the center. Staying in the first circle allows a sense of play and curiosity conducive to learning. There’s no rush.

Dash has taught hundreds of people to swim using this method. While most conventional lessons emphasize the ability to take strokes, those won’t help if the swimmer is in a panic.

She shifts the goal of lessons in a fundamental way—students should stay confident and in control in deep water—sometimes unexpectedly and for an indefinite period of time.

“If people can do strokes for 25 yards and they pass a test but they can’t stop and rest in the middle, they cannot swim,” she says. The real question is, “Can you rest peacefully unassisted for 15 minutes in deep water, far away from the walls?”

Portrait of Melon Dash wearing a swim cap and goggles in a pool.

Melon Dash

Surveys show about half of American adults can’t swim. Dash believes the number is even higher and would like to see her method adopted more widely to help those struggling with an ability everyone should have a chance to attain. To that end, she recently released a new edition of her book, Conquer Your Fear of Water: A Revolutionary Way to Learn to Swim Without Ever Feeling Afraid.

Students come to Sarasota from around the country, many with big goals: to share a partner’s love of sailing or to end a legacy of non-swimmers in the family. Even to end the racist legacy of pool segregation that still stunts the rates of Black swimmers throughout the country. Classes range from “SloMo”—relaxing in very shallow water—to ocean swimming and jumping off a boat.

By the end of Dash’s beginner course, my classmates were jumping into the deep end. I confess that I’m not quite there yet. But with no-pressure guidance from Dash and her assistants, I’ve rewired my brain to hear that underwater silence differently. I’m on my way.

Hear Dash describe how it works in her own words.