How to Swim with John Wayne

Michael Butler
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John Wayne had trouble swimming and had to be rescued off Catalina Island on several occasions. He often tried to learn how to swim, but his greatest fear was of drowning.

In 1949, propman Dave –Red” Barry started swimming lessons with the actor. His theory was to get Wayne swimming by making it fun. Together, they fashioned kickboards that resembled cowboys. The props were named “Horses” and he even made one out of a small car engine.

The traditional way of teaching a beginner to swim is to have them float in a casual and relaxed way on the water. However, in an effort to make it more enjoyable, Wayne and Barry wore cowboy hats and boots to make it more of a playful; cowboy-themed adventure. This unexpectedly clicked with Wayne and soon he was swimming on his own.

According to Barry, he never had any intention of helping Wayne overcome his fear of drowning. However, the actor’s sense of playful fun helped him overcome his fear and gave him the important skill of coping with people in the water.