It's the last day of the beginner’s swim course at MIT and the first time the students will leap from the diving board without the reassuring presence of fins on their feet. Srikanth Bolla, a first-year student in brain and cognitive sciences and business, hesitates at the end of the board.
The water is calm and clear, all the way down to the bottom 16 feet below. The board dips toward the pool, trembling under Bolla’s weight. It’s a nerve-wracking view for anyone just learning to swim, but Bolla can't see the water. He can't see the bottom of the pool or his toes gripping the lip of the quivering board because Bolla is blind.
"One... two..." counts swim instructor Larry Anderson, giving Bolla a deadline for jumping, a motivator that Anderson has learned to use after more than 20 years of teaching. Sure enough, when the count reaches "three," Bolla steps off the board and plunges into the water. There’s a splash, a flurry of kicking feet and paddling hands, and then Bolla surfaces. “That’s cool,” he says, smiling and treading water.
Bolla is taking the course as part of the General Institute Requirement's swim requirement. Students are recommended to complete a swim course but can elect to test out by passing a 100-yard swim test in order to graduate.
“I took the class to learn how to swim to protect myself in an emergency,” said Bolla. “Also it is a very good body exercise.”
Bolla’s can-do spirit is matched by the generosity of four MIT students who volunteered to help Bolla learn to swim: Lauren Hernley ’11, Kevin Hsuie ’13, Lauren Cipicchio ’10, and Ariadne Smith ’10. "Bolla is really excited about swimming and he's easy to help because he is so enthusiastic," says Hsiue, a member of the MIT swim and water polo teams. And Bolla and his four partners developed a strong relationship through the class.
Both the instructor and swim team helpers were very good,” said Bolla. “I had a lot of fun, and at the same time I learned to swim for the first time in my life. Now I can swim well.”
Anderson says that many beginning swimmers start out afraid of the water. Having someone who is blind and yet so enthusiastic about learning helped other students overcome their fears. Knowing this, Anderson asked Bolla to go off the diving board first.
“If Bolla had not done it, I knew a few others would not have," says Anderson.
"Watching Bolla was inspiring and it made you realize that if he can do it, then anyone can," adds Bolla’s classmate Kwasi Nti, a senior in electrical engineering and computer science.
Bolla's presence in the class was inspiring for Anderson and all of the students. "I knew it would be an opportunity to learn something about myself and everyone in the class," says Anderson.
Anderson, who is also the head coach of the MIT men's basketball team, is not only there to instruct the students on proper techniques, but also to help ease fears, talking students through the process with the skill of a veteran instructor and the enthusiasm of a first-year teacher. “Who needs fins? Nobody!" he yells to the students. "If you guys can’t do it, who can? You can send people to the moon and cure diseases, so you can go off a diving board!”
"Larry is probably the best teacher I've ever had," says Farre Nixon, a junior in urban studies and planning. "He's always telling us that Rome wasn’t built in a day, so to keep trying."
And Bolla intends to keep trying. He says he’d like to continue swimming, and he approaches it with the same philosophy for everything he does: "If we are persistent, we can rise above our circumstances."