Facing Waves, Shredding Fears

Krish Shethia
December 10, 2017

​I stuck my head below and swam out just a few more feet. The water was warm and perfectly comfortable; I dreaded the thought of eventually having to leave it. But for now, I floated calmly and enjoyed the gentle waves. I resurfaced and rubbed the water from my eyes, before turning to look back at the shore. I immediately froze with shock when I found that it had completely disappeared. I frantically spun and looked in every direction, only to find an immense spread of blue stretching into the horizon all around me. As my panic built, it felt like the water was somehow tightening around me. My muscles started to lock up and my breath ran short. Little by little I started to sink lower and lower, until I was enveloped by the vast expanse of blue.

That's when I woke up. I just stared at the ceiling for a bit, trying to catch my breath. The sheets below me were damp with cold sweat. I felt my heart throbbing and an uncomfortable tightness in my chest. As I reached for my phone and glasses, I realized my hands were tightly clenched and shaking. About ten minutes later, I was standing on the balcony of our airbnb overlooking Constitución Plaza in San Sebastian. The evening before, I had made a very, very big decision. I decided to take a beginner's surfing lesson. Not that big of a deal for most people, I know. But for me it really was.

I stood there on the balcony for a while, watching a cold drizzle rinse off the city’s streets and thinking about how it all started. It wasn't one particular incident, just an initial fear that had slowly snowballed into a borderline phobia. The first time I remember going to a pool was when my friends and I all took a swimming lesson. I was terrified of getting into any water that was more than two feet deep, and after a long series of tantrums and begging, I got my parents to let me quit the lessons. I was young, so they figured I would just learn eventually. The next time I was put in lessons, the instructor made us practice in shallow water for every lesson until the very last. I had been doing great in the shallow end, and my confidence had started to build. When the last lesson came around, he lined us all up standing in front of the deep end. I was last in line. One by one, every kid before me dove in and swam a lap to the other side, where all of our parents were waiting. Some kids were slow, some kids were fast, some hesitated, and some dove right in. All were met with an applause as they emerged on the other side. Finally, I was up. I stood there trembling, trying to convince myself to jump. My instructor looked at me reassuringly, but as I stood there for longer, not moving, he started to lose patience. Eventually, he came to me and tried to pull me into the water with him. As he approached I freaked out and ran around the pool to the other side; I was the only kid who didn't jump. After that attempt, my parents gave up. I would simply avoid deep water at all costs, and deal with the repercussion of my friends make fun of me for being scared. Once high school rolled around, however, it became a point of shame and guilt for me. I knew it was irrational, I knew there was absolutely nothing to be afraid of. Although I really wanted to, I never acted on my will to overcome my fear. Until that evening in San Sebastian.

It's not like I physically didn't know how to swim, I was just scared of deep water. So, what better time to shatter my fear than study abroad, when you're supposed to be stepping out of your comfort zone, and what better place than arguably the best spot for surfing in all of Europe? And so there I was. 5 AM, drenched in sweat, desperately questioning my decision. I ran through it again and again in my head. Every possible thing that could go wrong. What if I panicked and drowned? What if my board hits me and knocks me unconscious in the water? What if I get caught in a riptide and get pulled out deep into the bay? I googled article after article about surfing dangers, about drowning, about my phobia, about how to overcome my phobia. I changed my mind maybe 20 times that morning, until the time for my lesson rolled around and I had no choice. My friend who was going with me tried his best to calm me down, and I finally decided to just go for it.

All I can say is this: it was amazing. That surfing lesson was quite possibly the most valuable experience of my entire semester abroad. When I first started with the instructor, I explained that I was scared of deeper water and wasn't a strong swimmer. I repeated that to him several times nervously, just to make sure he really understood. He simply smiled each time and told me not to worry. The first time we entered water above chest level, I panicked. I stopped in my tracks and clung onto the surfboard for dear life. As a wave came over us, and I was all of a sudden emerged in water, I froze up. I wiped out quickly and ended up twenty feet back upside down scrambling to resurface. It was at that moment I realized there was one thing I could absolutely not do: panic. Panicking and losing my cool was the one thing that would actually put me in a dangerous situation, and as long as I stayed calm, I knew I would be fine. So, I decided instead to get as excited as I possible. I needed to be more excited for what was happening that I was nervous for it. Time flew by as I learned. I wiped out maybe 20 times and only managed to actually stand on the board about four, but the important part was that I was swimming in deep water confidently. An hour and a half later, I was back on the beach with a smile stretched across my face.

Studying abroad is scary. You're in a new place with new people and a thin safety net. It’s easy to stay at home, to do the basic touristy stuff while travelling, to avoid whatever makes you uncomfortable. But when you take a step into the unknown, even if it means trying a new food or taking a surfing lesson or going to some event you usually wouldn’t go to, that’s when you truly grow as a person, and that’s really what your semester abroad should be about.

**quick disclaimer: When I talk about trying new things and doing what makes you uncomfortable, I'm obviously talking about taking smart, calculated risks and not actually putting youself in dangerous situations. Yes I was scared of deep water, but I was with a trained instructor on a busy beach with several life guards around. 


The activities in this post were undertaken during the student’s free time and were not sponsored by IES Abroad.

Krish Shethia

<p>Industrial Engineering major from Penn State with minimal Spanish skills, finding my way through Madrid. I love to read, write, eat, and take pictures.</p>

2017 Fall
Home University:
Penn State University
Williston Park, NY
Engineering - General
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