Learning how to swim

It’s that time of year… I just took my final exams in Mathematical Economics. One more exam to go.

The experience of taking that finals reminds me of the swimming lessons I took before my teens. (This was in the sixties, if you must know.) Every summer, the Bernardo Park in Quezon City offered formal swimming lessons for the youth. The park had a clean and well-maintained public swimming pool (25 x 50 meters, I think). Since the pool was just a walking distance from our house in Kamuning, it was very accessible and convenient. I went to swimming class with some friends in the neighborhood.

The program was run by “Sir Luna”, a swimming trainer and a real professional, who conducted it at the pool’s shallow end (4 feet deep). We started with “bubbling”, learning to breathe in out of the water, and breathe out in the water. Exhale through the nose, inhale through the mouth. The key was in the rhythm. Exhale, inhale. You had to pace yourself. Exhale, inhale. We must have done the bubbling routine tens of thousands of times by the time we finished the course. Exhale, inhale.

After bubbling, it was paddling. Standing chest-deep at the shallow end of the pool, arms stretched out in front and on the gutter, we paddled with the left arm, and then the right. Left, then right. Then, we were introduced to the “flutter kick”. While we held on to the gutter, we started “fluttering” our feet a few inches up and down, knees kept straight. We also did the flutter kick across the width of the pool, at the shallow end, but no breathing. Just face down, arms stretched in front, and looking at the pool’s bottom as it moved slowly past us. When we ran out of breath, we stopped. After several training days, we also did the routines two at a time: bubbling and paddling, bubbling and kicking, paddling and kicking. Then we tried all three. We held on to the gutter, facing the swimming pool edge, most of the time.

After two weeks or so of these, we got to try all three routines away from the gutter. The hardest part was the breathing. If you lost your rhythm, you breathed in at the wrong time and took water. You had to stick with the “bubbling” exercise, day after day, until the rhythm became part of you, and your muscles knew by themselves, without any conscious thought from you, when to inhale and when to exhale, just like you do out of the water. This was, I think, the key – for one’s lungs to learn the exhale-inhale routine and to do it without conscious thought. One by one, my classmates got it, and they started to actually swim by themselves! Then, they were allowed to play at the deep end. But I still didn’t get it. My legs, arms, neck, nose, mouth and especially my lungs had not learned enough. I’d lose my rhythm and then inhale at the wrong time and take in water. I must have drank gallons from that pool.

To graduate, one was expected to dive from a diving board at the deep (9 feet) end of the pool, and swim the 50 meters to the shallow end. In full view of relatives, friends and guests. On graduation day, my friends all made that graduation dive. I wasn’t ready, so I didn’t. After graduation, graduates were granted free access to the pool for the rest of summer. Sir Luna was kind enough to give me access too.

For the rest of summer, my friends and I enjoyed that pool. They played at the deep end, showing off their new swimming skills. They loved diving from the diving board. Although I stayed at the shallow end, I enjoyed it as much as they did. Then, one day, it just came. I finally got my rhythm and I started swimming too! So, before the summer ended, I also got to play and to dive at the deep end.

One of our professors in graduate school had told us, “sometimes, you learn more from the tests you fail.” How true. “But your grades won’t show it,” he added. Indeed, failures can often teach us lessons better than success. We call it learning the hard way.

By the way, I made that graduation dive the next summer.


  1. Dante Dalabajan
    Posted May 17, 2010 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Hi Obet! I stumbled upon your blogspot as I was doing my own research of SRI. Sir Luna must be Mang Ben who passed away in Quezon last year. His son Richard now coaches the DLSU swimming team and is a familiar fixture in national competition as a meet director.

    I and Ed S. will have swimming sessions this coming days in Teachers Village. You might want to take a refresher course. 😉

  2. Roberto Verzola
    Posted May 17, 2010 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    We called him Sir Ben. He was Sir Luna’s assistant. Sir Luna was the father of national champion Grace Luna. What is Richard’s last name, by the way? It would be nice to know, after all these years, Sir Ben’s full name. Where is that Teachers’ Village swimming pool? Regards,


  3. Dante Dalabajan
    Posted May 18, 2010 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    Father and son Mang Ben and Richard Luna used to coach the powerhouse Laguna Team in the 1990s until the Puerto Princesa team of Coach Danny Egot stood in their way.

    The pool is in Mahabagin St.

  4. Roberto Verzola
    Posted May 20, 2010 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Yes, you are right. Ben nga pala si Sir Luna. His assistant, I remember his name now, was Sir Roger. So Richard and Grace are siblings. Si Grace Luna lang ang nakikita ko noon sa Bernardo Park swimming pool, being trained by his father when she was only four or five years old.

  5. grace luna
    Posted May 13, 2012 at 12:44 am | Permalink

    I only came across this write up just now. To Mr. Dante Dalabajan my dad, Ruben Luna, or Mang Ben or Coach Ben to the swimming community, is still alive and kicking at 82 yrs. old. At present he still coaches swimming at the De La Salle University in Dasmarinas, Cavite. He was awarded the Best Coach in the recently concluded National PRISAA swim meet (nationwide private schools meet) in Cebu City. He now resides in Bacoor, Cavite. I will also have fond memories of the days when dad always took me with him to Bernardo Park.

    Thank you for all your kind words about my dad.

  6. Roberto Verzola
    Posted October 20, 2013 at 6:39 am | Permalink

    Dear Grace,

    I’m not sure if I ever acknowledged your post. Kindly greet your dad for me. We four Verzola siblings of Kamuning learned swimming from your father (“Sir Ben”, “Sir Luna”) at the Bernardo Part swimming pool. Most of the youths in our block (K-2nd, from K-E to K-D St.) learned swimming from him and his assistant, Sir Roger.

    I’m a bit embarrassed to admit, take two ako sa kanya, haha.


    Obet Verzola

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