The Al Jazira Ladies’ Swim Club

By Nancy Bercaw | @nancybercaw


It’s 10:10 pm and I’m wide awake. What could possibly keep me up passed my regularly scheduled bedtime of 8:30 pm? Only one thing…


A swimming pool!


Tonight, I had the great joy of coaching a dozen female students from Khalifa University — although I had not anticipated joy being part of the equation.


Actually, I was kind of nervous about the prospects beforehand. I haven’t coached anyone for a while, and I’ve most certainly never worked on stroke technique with Arabic-speaking female Muslims. What if I say the wrong thing? Will my skills work for their needs?


Truth is, I had absolutely no idea how to proceed or what to expect. Khalifa University holds a women’s swimming class every Wednesday evening, during women’s swim time at the Al Jazira Club. A handful of ex-swimmer expats from KU help out with the lessons. One of them invited me to join in the chaos of coaching nearly 60 young ladies whose skill levels are all over the place.


I showed up at Al Jazira hoping my instincts would kick in. I met one of the other coaches, for the first time, on the pool deck. She was tall like me. Broad shouldered like me. A little younger than me. Turns out she swam for the National Teams of Yugoslavia/Bosnia in the 50-meter freestyle. I am American national champion in the same event!


She suggested that I take the best swimmers to the deep end and work with them while she helped the beginners in the shallow end.


As my group gathered —me in a Speedo, the rest in very demure swimming costumes — I decided the best thing to do was give them the best of Nancy Bercaw.


We spent 30 minutes on simple stroke techniques. Elbows, reach, push and body position. I tried to make a lot of physics references for these engineering students. THEY GOT IT. They learned so fast, and were so eager. We had a relay race afterward to test the tips in a real swim situation. THEY LOVED IT. For the grand finale, we played Sharks and Minnows – essentially a game of underwater tag. THEY ROARED WITH LAUGHTER AND WERE VERY COMPETITIVE. Turns out that their English is excellent and my elementary Arabic did the trick.


In one-hour, I came to see these women as very different from the veiled students I pass on campus. We connected in the water — transcending our outward appearances and internal histories — to become the most unlikely of soggy companions.


Occasionally I would extend my hand to a tired swimmer to pull her closer to the wall– and every time the reach was reciprocated.


When class was over, I sat on the pool deck and watched my “team” play for a few minutes. As they left for the locker room, I thanked them for working so hard and having fun. Here’s some of the feedback I received in return:


You are so good at this…I’ve never learned so much in one lesson…I had the best time ever. Will you come every Wednesday? You have a great personality…I don’t want to get out of the water…Thanks, Coach!


I got a bit choked up, which has resulted in my staying up until 11 p.m. to consider the whole experience.


Here’s my conclusion: In the Al Jazira pool tonight, I wasn’t an American Christian and my swimmers weren’t Arab Muslims.


We were Bedouin mermaids. The best of both worlds, bringing out the best in ourselves and each other.

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