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Dr. Shakuntala Rao

Dr. Shakuntala Rao credits the Mandel JCC for getting her into the swim of things – literally.

“As a child growing up in India I had never been near a body of water, and certainly never set foot in a swimming pool,” said Dr. Rao, 62, a pediatrician at Hillcrest Hospital. “Consequently, as I grew older I developed a great fear of water.”

But four years ago after Dr. Rao had knee surgery, she required physical therapy. Her physician suggested warm water aquatic exercises because the added buoyancy of an aquatic environment would relieve the pressure on her recovering knee and directed exercises would slowly rebuild her knee’s strength.

But Dr. Rao’s fear of water was almost a deal breaker. “The mere mention of water therapy caused me anxiety,” she said. “But I realized I had to overcome my life-long fear of water in order to save my knee and prevent further invasive medical treatment.”

Armed with determination, and a sore knee, Dr. Rao met Mandel JCC water instructor Nikki Palevsky. She described her deadly fear of water to Nikki, who calmly assured her the two of them would work through the problem.

Dr. Rao vividly recalls her first few times in the pool. “I was so terrified when Nikki tried to get me to sit on the edge of the pool and put my toes in the water I wanted to run out the door,” she said.

Due to Nikki’s encouragement, patience and expertise Dr. Rao’s fears slowly began to ebb. Within a few months Nikki had her putting her face in the water, then eventually learning how to float.“When I was able float by myself without a hint of panic, I knew I was on my way.”

Once her fear of water was gone, the next step was private swimming lessons. Under Nikki’s watchful eye Dr. Rao learned to swim. She now is completely comfortable doing the breaststroke, backstroke, front crawl and can even dive into the water.She can be found swimming at the Mandel JCC at least twice a week, and enjoying every minute of it.

Dr. Rao often takes her grandchildren with her to The J's pool. “I’m thrilled they are as comfortable in the water as I am,” she said.

Learning to swim was one of Dr. Rao’s greatest personal accomplishments. “It was hard work, and Nikki was a tough taskmaster, but I was determined to overcome my fear and my knee has never felt better,” she said.

Nikki’s pride in her student is evident when the two of them swim laps together. “I hope to have that same determination in all that I do throughout the rest of my life. She is truly an inspiration.”