By Bonnie Schwartz

A half-naked man is directing my husband to turn our 2.5-year-old daughter face down into the pool while I watch nervously from the side.

Never mind that our kid has never been in a pool before, let alone that she has yet to learn to float comfortably on her back.

"Face down?" I think. "Face down?" What's he trying to do? Drown her?"

It turns out he's not trying to drown her. What he's trying to do, he later explains, is get her as comfortable floating on her stomach as she is starting to feel floating on her back (while my husband gently supports her), skills that are the basic building blocks of developing comfort in the water.

Jitters aside, it was my idea to bring our daughter here today, given that I am one of those moms, the kind who lies in bed at night with horrific visions of toddler tragedies jerking in CinemaScope across the undersides of her eyelids.

Soon after my daughter turned 2, I decided that what she really needed to do right away was learn how to swim, fearful she might find herself beside a body of water and inadvertently fall in (never mind that we live in the desert; never mind that what qualifies as a body of water here is the sandpaper-dry arroyo that runs through town that we locals like to call the Santa Fe River).

When I began to research the toddler swim classes available in our burg, I mostly found several-week sessions in which parents and toddlers sign up for no less than three classes per week.

Not only is that a whole lot of driving back and forth practically every other day to dip a 2-year-old into a pool with a bunch of other 2-year-olds while living through their sonically magnified screams (did I mention that, aside from neurotic, I am also lazy and noise-sensitive?), I wasn't convinced my daughter Willow would have the patience necessary for—nor could I envision her enjoying—so much structured exposure to the world of water play.

Unlike the more social children of some of my friends—kids who love getting together with other half-pints in pursuit of communal fun—my little one doesn't particularly like the kind of structured social activity that group classes require. So after much asking around and interviewing over the phone several very nice, knowledgeable instructors who teach at some of the pools in town, I started to hear a single name invoked from parents whose children were similarly persnickety. The name of the instructor who was recommended over and over again was Jim Kemper, sounded in excited, whispered tones.

It took me a little while to get in touch with Kemper. He's a busy guy. While he calls himself retired (over a 40-year career he worked as a meteorologist in Florida, Washington, DC and Alaska, until he retired 2½ years ago), he is almost never close enough to a telephone—mobile or stationary—to pick it up. Either he is life-guarding at El Gancho or acting as a golf marshal on one of the local courses or teaching one of 20 weekly half-hour swim lessons. Whatever his days hold, this 68-year-old retiree likes to be on the move.

When I was finally able to pin Kemper down, I wasted no time setting up an appointment for my husband Gong, Willow and myself to meet with him for our first swim lesson. How he deals with children, he explains, is, rather than work directly with the kids (who typically don't want a stranger having anything to do with them), he teaches parents methods to help their progeny become comfortable in the water. The lessons take place at El Gancho, where parents can pay a $6 per person guest fee (if they are not members) in addition to Kemper's fee of $18 per half-hour lesson.

While Kemper's list of approximately 100 local clients includes those from 6 months to 75 years of age, 90 to 95 percent of his clients fall under the age of 12.

"Four to 6-year-olds are the ones I work with most," he says. "Six is perfect. By that age they have more confidence in their judgment, are not as fearful and they listen better."

One of the things I quickly learned to appreciate about Kemper is his acknowledgement and understanding of a toddler's attention span.

"I usually give one half-hour class a week to a child enrolled with me, but of that half hour only 15 or 20 minutes is taken up by actual instruction. Fifteen minutes is just about enough. After 20 minutes they're done," he says.
Within a few minutes of Gong, Willow and Kemper submersing themselves in the natatorium, Kemper had Gong leading Willow around the pool by her outstretched arms. Frightened grimaces turned quickly to relaxed grins as she started to feel secure in my husband's hold and to enjoy the feeling of the water buoying her tiny frame.

"I'm flying," she repeated as Gong drifted her around the pool.

Kemper soon directed Gong to flip our kid over and over, from stomach to back, back to stomach, like a rolling pin. While she was initially more comfortable on her back than her tummy, by the end of the lesson, she had figured out how to keep her head and mouth high enough above the water line for the front-floating enterprise to feel less treacherous. By the 15-minute mark, Kemper was submerging a plastic light-up shark into the blue liquid and having Willow retrieve it, requiring at times that she wet her face as she reached for the shark. His tactic was effective. Once that clever blinking shark was in the picture, Willow seemed to completely forget that submerging her face was something she didn't want to do, laughing heartily every time she plucked the shark victoriously from the shallow pool floor.

Once my nervousness abated, the lesson turned out to be buckets of fun for Gong and me as we reveled in our daughter's quick progress. I assumed it was just as much fun for Willow, but when I asked her on the drive home if she wanted to go back to the pool later in the week she responded, in typical toddler fashion, decisively in the negative. So going forward, like it or not, we plan to force our kid into the pool. Maybe at some point she'll start to like it in there. And if not, at least we'll have a good time. Anyone know where we can find some of those fabulous light-up sharks?

Bathing Suit Bound
In Santa Fe, swim-lesson options abound. Here are a few:

BiCentennial Pool
1121 Alto St., 505-438-9431
Offers swim lessons for infants, toddlers, preschoolers and school-age children Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays or Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Session 1: June 22-July 17; Session 2: July 20-Aug. 14; Session 3: Aug. 17-28. $168 plus tax for 12 classes. Private lessons also available.

Casa Solana Pool
1125 N. Plata Circle, 505-983-9001
Offers swim lessons for various ages, levels and abilities, Monday through Thursday mornings. Session 1: June 8-18; Session 2: June 22-July 2; Session 3: July 6-16; Session 4: July 20-30; Session 5: Aug. 3-13. $60 for Casa Solana Neighborhood Association members, $75 for non-CSNA members, for eight 45-minute classes. Pool membership is not restricted to Casa Solana residents.

El Gancho Fitness, Swim and Racquet Club

104 Old Las Vegas Hwy., 505-988-5000, 505-603-7791
Offers swim lessons on a continuing basis for kids and adults ages 2 and up year-round with Jim Kemper or Patrick Serrano by appointment only. $18 plus tax per half-hour private lesson, $20 plus tax per half-hour semi-private, or $38 plus tax per hour semi-private, in addition to $6 per person guest fee if not a member.

Fort Marcy Pool

490 Washington Ave., 505-955-2510
Offers infant (6 months-2 years), preschool (3-5) and children’s (6-12) classes in three sessions this summer. Classes will be held on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. Session 1: June 8-26 (registration 8 am-5 pm June 5 ); Session 2: July 6-24 (registration 8 am-5 pm July 2); Session 3: Aug. 3-21 (registration 8 am-5 pm July 31). $45 per session. Private lessons also available.

Genoveva Chavez Community Center

3221 Rodeo Road, 505-955-4066
Offers one-hour parent-tot open swims on a drop-in basis 9-10 am, Tuesdays and Thursdays in the therapy pool and 10-11 am in the leisure pool. $8.
Preschool children (ages 3-5) and Level One (ages 6 and up) classes will be offered in four two-week sessions this summer, Mondays through Thursdays, choice of mornings or afternoons. Session 1: June 1-11; Session 2: June 22-July 2; Session 3: July 13-23; Session 4: Aug. 3-13. $60 per session. Private lessons also available.

Salvador Perez Pool

601 Alta Vista St., 505-955-2601
Offering swim classes for children ages 5 and up Monday through Friday mornings in four sessions this summer. Session 1: June 15-26 (registration begins at 8 am June 12); Session 2: July 6-17 (registration begins at 8 am July 2); Session 3: July 27-Aug. 7 (registration begins at 8 am July 24); Session 4: Aug. 12-25 (registration begins at
8 am Aug. 11). $45 for 10 sessions. Private lessons also available.