Back in the swim: As demand soars for lessons, instructors reflect on their experiences

photo by: Chansi Long

Claudine Robke teaches Kate Lock a back float at Claudine's Private Swim, 722 Michigan St.

Booking a swim lesson in Lawrence takes initiative. Despite there being a number of local swim schools, lessons fill up at the launch of summer and stay full all season.

Sarah Raser purchased a 16-lesson plan at Dorie’s Swim School in April, immediately snatching up a good selection of slots, but has since been unable to schedule more.

“I knew I wanted to sign up for more lessons (but) I’ve not been able to secure any more slots,” Raser said. “Perhaps I’m not as diligent as I should be.”

A tight schedule with few openings is the norm at most, if not all, swim schools in Lawrence right now. Swim lessons are always in high demand, according to Dorie Portela of Dorie’s Swim School, enabling most schools to attract students by word of mouth, but also making it difficult for parents to schedule consistent time slots for their children.

Portela said the demand for swim instruction in Lawrence has shot up post pandemic, and her wait list is huge.

“This year has been especially bad because we had so many kids who didn’t get to swim last year so they are incredibly in need,” Portela said. “I wish I had a bigger space so I could teach every student who needed it.”

Lawrence’s Parks and Recreation Department provides swim lessons all year, but many parents opt for private lessons.

A handful of private businesses specialize in swim instruction in Lawrence: Dorie’s Swim School, Claudine’s Private Swim, Lawrence Swim School and Lawrence Aquahawks, among them.

Patrick Norman of Lawrence Swim School said he and his wife, Katie Price, co-owner and swim instructor, have been working nonstop since the COVID lockdown last March.

“We had a huge uptick in business,” Norman said. “I think it was just a time parents (wanted) to have some sort of normal routine when everything else wasn’t normal at all.”

One reason for the high demand in swim instruction is obvious: Parents want to keep children safe in and around water, a goal shared by their swim instructors.

Claudine Robke, of Claudine’s Private Swim, recalled how she lost her best friend to drowning when she was only 5 years old.

“I remember how devastating that was because I was only 5 and my parents were adamant at that time; they said, ‘You got to learn to swim,'” Robke said. “Swimming has been a big part of my life since.”

Like Robke’s, Portela’s career in swim instruction had a tragic impetus: Her cousin’s 2-year-old daughter drowned in the bathtub 20 years ago, before Portela had started teaching.

“She was the most careful mother, had every kind of baby gate and every safety precaution possible,” Portela said. “That (death) hit home to me and I felt like it was important to share my talent and gift. I feel like I have a gift to get kids to relax and to trust me, and that helps them get more comfortable in the water.”

Local swim instructors agree that navigating students’ fears can be a challenge.

“Some students who were out of the water for a year, they lost that time in the water where pools weren’t open locally,” Norman said. “You have kids come in and cry, and we don’t necessarily go with the method where you just dunk them in the water. Learning how to blow bubbles through the nose and not through the mouth is one thing we talk about.”

The method Robke teaches is based on the Infant Swimming Resource’s Self-Rescue program, which is designed to empower babies and children to roll to their backs and float in case they ever fall in the water unexpectedly.

“I just a had a family — their daughter has been coming to me since she was a baby because they knew they were going to have a pool and they knew the importance of that; she fell in the pool when her mom wasn’t watching, and she went to her back float and saved herself,” Robke said.

Fear of the water is not something unique to children.

“I’ve seen too many adults who are fearful of the water. Maybe parents threw them in and said make it to the wall,” Portela said. “Really the only challenge with teaching adults is they are quicker to run out of patience with themselves. Adults get frustrated quickly because they think they should be developing quicker.”

In addition to fear of the water, adults struggle with other issues, like perseverance and buoyancy.

“The biggest thing for adults is they don’t have that feel for the water, and floating can be a challenge,” Norman said. “Even getting their body horizontal — a lot of them are really stiff. You have to be like a jellyfish, really fluid with the water.”

If students can stick with it, Norman said, swimming has benefits that last through old age.

“We think of ourselves as teaching a life skill,” he said. “We want kids to swim from age 2 till old age; it’s a life sport. When you get to be 70 you’re not going to be playing very many pick-up games. But you can always get in and water walk and aqua jog.”

For Raser the immediate benefits of swim instruction are about confidence and safety, as well as joy.

“I really want my girls to be safe in and around water. I want them to enjoy carefree hours in the pool and sun-soaked days at the beach like I did as a child,” she said. “There is such freedom in floating into the depths and knowing you can get back to shore. And, maybe, one of these days I’ll be able to sit under an umbrella, feet in the sand, reading a book while they splash around, knowing they are all right out there.”

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