Learning To Love The Ocean After A Lifetime Of Fearing It

Jul 19, 2014
Originally published on July 23, 2014 10:14 am

Tim Bomba is a tall, rangy guy with a quick smile. He's a marathoner, a triathlete (he's done two Ironman races), and every Wednesday morning for the last decade, Bomba has taught a ocean swimming course in Santa Monica, Calif.

The course, called Ocean 101, isn't for accomplished swimmers like Bomba. It's for people who are new to the ocean, and many participants are afraid of the water when they arrive. Bomba knows what they're going through. He himself was terrified of swimming until he was in his 50s.

"I remember even back in grade school taking lessons, I could not let go of the side of the pool," he tells NPR's Kelly McEvers, a longtime friend and former colleague.

When he was 30, tragedy struck Bomba's family. His 16-year-old brother, Danny, drowned in the ocean on a family vacation to New Jersey. At the time, Bomba wasn't on the best terms with his family. The night before the accident, he had traveled to see them for the first time in two years.

"There's always been that thought I was called to see him just that one last time," says Bomba. "And maybe this does go back to why I [teach now]."

In his classes, Bomba has seen students who are completely terrified of the ocean.

"People who are new to the water, I think they want to relate to somebody who has also shared their experience but has gone on from that experience," he says.

Bomba's path to overcoming his own fear began with a movie he was working on as an audio engineer. Bomba was assigned to score a scene that dealt with the idea of the mind-body connection, that what a person thinks about is what he ultimately becomes.

Bomba was somewhat skeptical of the message, but he thought, "Why not at that point in my life — I was 52 — why not try it?" So he got back in the pool and started doing the exercises that kids do when they first learn to swim.

With the help of a colleague and friend, Steve Herbert, Bomba eventually started swimming in the ocean. In 2004, Herbert and Bomba founded the Ocean 101 course. It was an immediate success — more than 30 people showed up for the first class. The pair had to recruit more coaches to keep up.

Now, the one-hour course limits itself to eight participants on any given Wednesday morning. Five coaches accompany new swimmers into the ocean, where they teach the basics of diving under waves and reading the surf.

Bomba says he wants to help people feel a sense of accomplishment. "If you are new to the ocean, then you can make every excuse in the world, as I used to, to not go in on a given day," he explains.

When new swimmers finish his course, he says, "I want people ... to go 'Yes! I did something today.' Because that sets the tone for so many other things, and it has almost nothing to do with swimming."

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story unfairly characterized Mr. Bomba's sense of humor. That reference has been deleted.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


A few years ago, I met this guy named Tim Bomba. And by, like, the second or third time I had talked to him on the phone, Tim was convincing me to sign up for a triathlon. Tim has done lots of races - marathons, even two Ironman triathlon's. And he's kind of a proselytizer. Here in LA, he teaches a clinic for the local triathlon club on how to do distance swimming in the ocean.

TIM BOMBA: OK, you guys want to just come down and we'll go over how to start?

MCEVERS: OK, you might be thinking - do you really need to take a class in that? You do. The hard part is learning how to get past the breaking waves and out to the place where the ocean's more calm. The fact that Tim Bomba is teaching this class at all is pretty amazing.

BOMBA: I wasn't a swimmer for most of my life. I was not only not a swimmer, I was terrified of water. I remember even back in grade school taking lessons - I could not let go of the side of the pool. So my entire life I've been terrified of water. We're going to take you in now and you're going to hear us call dive. Again, the top of the wave is where the white water is - that's where all the power is - that's where we don't want to be. We don't want to be anywhere near the top of that wave. We want to be as far underneath the water surface as possible.

I grew up in Pittsburgh, as far away from an ocean as you could imagine. And there was a period of time when I wasn't on the best terms with my family. I was in New York, they were in Pittsburgh and I got a call from my dad one day. saying they're going to be traveling from Pittsburgh to the Jersey Shore. And they were going to spend the night in Philadelphia, and would I be interested in coming down and seeing them and to sort of get things back on track. And I said yeah, you know, I'll do that. So I went down that night. I hadn't seen anybody for two years, including my two brothers. We had a chance to spend some time together. The next day, I got the call - my youngest brother drowned in the ocean. He was 16, I was 30. There's always been that thought - I was called to see him just that one last time. And maybe this does go back to why I do it.

OK, when you hear us say dive, you dive. Watch the water Kelly, watch it. Ready - dive.

We've seen people with their goggles on start crying, you know, when they're at the beach just because they're so terrified. And people who are new to the water - I think they want to relate to somebody who has also shared their experience but has gone on from that experience. And that's pretty much what we work at.

OK, you came up a little early, but you got the dive better. And again, always watch the water, watch what's going on, see what's going on out there in front of you.

I was working on a film that - and this is about as spiritual as i'll get - that addressed sort of the mind-body connection, meaning what you think about is what you become. And I was pretty cynical about that film and about that message. But I thought - why not - at that point my life I was 52 - you know - why not try it? And it took a long time - you know - it was getting back into the pool, it was doing the exercises that five-year-olds are doing, getting my face in the water. But I still had this sort of underlying concern about being in the water. Until the one day - I was driving down to the ocean and for lack of a better term - I had this extremely detailed vision of me in the wet-suit swimming a mile. That was the day I did the mile.

You good?

MCEVERS: That was awesome (laughing). I haven't dealt with anything like that in a long time.

BOMBA: I was watching you, you have a good stroke when you swim. And you guys seem to be pretty comfortable on the surface of the water, which is good to see.

If you are new to the ocean, then you can make every excuse in the world, as I used to, to not go in on a given day. And at the end of this parking lot, when you're about to hit the road, there's a stop sign. I want people when they hit that stop sign to - whether it's figuratively or literally - do a fist pump. Go yes, I did something today because that sets the tone for the rest of so many things. And it has almost nothing to do with swimming.

MCEVERS: Tim is so into encouraging people, he now works as an announcer at triathlon's all over the country, standing at the finish line and cheering people in.

BOMBA: You see her, coming around that line, twenty seconds to go - they're finishing up. She ran this half relay with her husband Al, Leandra Wado Johnson (ph), smile for that camera.


LOVERBOY: (Singing) Everyone's watching to see what you will do.

MCEVERS: Tim Bomba also records other people's stories at races. To read more about Tim and see pictures, go to our website npr.org.


LOVERBOY: (Singing) Everyone's wondering will you come out tonight, everyone's trying to get it right. Everybody's working for the weekend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.