Swim lessons at 6-months-old has become the norm in Manatee

rdymond@bradenton.comJune 24, 2014 

When Amanda and Guil Geneau bought their dream home in Waterlefe Golf and River Club in East Manatee, they were a little apprehensive because it came with a swimming pool, even though it had a fence around it.

That's because the couple's infant daughter, who couldn't swim, was one of those children who, when they see water, go full throttle toward it.

"She's fearless," Amanda Geneau said of Arianna, a perky blonde who has a mind of her own. "Based on her behavior around water and having our own pool, we decided we had to get her swimming lessons."

Amanda Geneau had several friends whose infants and toddlers took classes with Megan Zoller, one of four certified instructors in Manatee County with the international company, Infant Swimming Resource, also known as ISR.

The Geneaus signed the then 21-month-old Arianna up for a five-week course with Zoller and, on Friday, their daughter had her final swimming lesson, which, like all the others, was held at Zoller's house on Riverside Drive, just east of Manatee Memorial Hospital. The lesson was just 10-minutes long so Arianna could retain what she had learned.

It was clear that Arianna could hold her breath underwater, swim for a short distance using a paddling stroke and float in a relaxed state for an extended period.

With Zoller in the pool with her, touching and guiding, Arianna dove underwater while holding her breath and paddled to the wall of Zoller's pool with her head down and her eyes open. She confidently rolled onto her back when she felt tired, held herself there and floated with her chin and face out of the water and her legs kicking gently.

What was surprising to an outsider was that Arianna is one of the "old girls" of Zoller's summer class of

students.

"I am teaching 6-month-olds to hold their breath underwater, roll onto their back and float unassisted," Zoller said.

Indeed, Zoller said toddler and infant swimming lessons beginning at six months have now become the norm.

If she had it to do over, Amanda Geneau said she would have started Arianna earlier.

"I love the lessons," Geneau said. "I wish I had done it when she was younger, but we're glad we are doing it now. I think I am doing Arianna a service by helping her learn to swim. But I also see it working in different aspects in her life. She's become more confident about everything."

Early swim lessons important in Florida

While a 6-month-old seems young to have swim lessons, Zoller points out that, in Florida, the No.1 cause of death for children younger than age 4 is drowning.

"We believe in teaching them how to be safe in the water before they learn the water is fun," Zoller said. "We are teaching survival skills. We want them to be able to get on their back and float. Floating is the survival piece. But I always tell parents, 'No child is drown proof.' This is one more layer to keep them safe, one more tool in the parent's belt, like a pool fence or alarm."

Statistics show that 83 percent of all children who drown are fully clothed at the time, so Zoller has toddlers practice their self-rescue skills in clothes.

Several child drownings in the region earlier this year spiked interest in early swim lessons, Zoller said.

"I feel this is an extremely busy year," Zoller said. "We had four or five drownings at the beginning of the year and more and more people are discovering us."

The six-year-old Mermaid Swim School, which covers five counties, including Sarasota and Manatee, is also busy this year, said owner Charlotte Marin.

"We tell parents that there are two things they can do to protect their children from drowning," Marin said. "The first is to protect the pool by making sure they have alarms on their house doors and windows if a child gets out to the pool, and self-closing and self-latching gates on the pool itself. The second thing is to have swim lessons as young as six months."

Like ISR, Mermaid Swim School stresses breath control.

"Blowing bubbles, submerging and breath control is the beginning," Marin said. "We move on to floating and front and back proper, leg kicking and arm paddling. Then, we move to swimming underwater and being able to get back to the side if they jump or fall in. It's a progressive experience. We break it down into different skills."

Just how does Zoller teach a 6-month-old to float?

"It really is a long process," Zoller said. "First, we teach them breath control so they are not drinking the water. Then, we work on swimming to the wall and pulling themselves out of the water. That evolves to the 'swim, float, swim' sequence. Everything we teach is through reinforcement with touching and teaching about water and air and how they are different."

As remarkable as they looked, the skills that Arianna learned in five weeks are expected if toddlers and their parents strictly follow ISR guidelines, Zoller said. The classes cost $80 a week.

ISR has documented 800 survival stories involving children its company contractors have taught, Zoller said.

One of Zoller's favorites involves a 3-year-old boy she taught named Bradley.

"Bradley was swimming with his dad during a pool party and told his dad he was thirsty and was going to leave the pool to ask his mom for a drink," Zoller said. "The dad watched Bradley swim to the edge of the pool but didn't actually see him leave the pool. A few minutes later mom and dad couldn't find Bradley. Frantically, they searched the pool and found Bradley floating on his back peacefully in the deep end. After they got him out they asked him what happened and Bradley said, 'I decided to swim back to dad but I got tired.' "

WHERE TO FIND LESSONS

Here are some of the organizations offering infant and toddler swim lessons this summer:

• The Bradenton, Parrish and Lakewood Ranch branches of the Manatee County YMCA are offering Parent/Child Swim Lessons this summer for children age six months to 2. The lessons run twice a week for four weeks and the sessions costs $5 for Y members and $75 for non-members. Lessons at the Lakewood Ranch and Parrish branches will begin June 30 and at the Bradenton Branch on July 7. For sign-up and additional information call 941-782-0220 for Lakewood Ranch Branch, 941-981-5323 for the Parrish Branch and 941-792-7474 for the Bradenton Branch. Registration can be done in person or online at manateeymca.org.

• Mermaid Swim School offers private and small group lessons for infants and toddlers at various locations. Information 941-363-1083.

• Megan Zoller is a certified Infant Swimming Resource instructor who gives lessons in downtown Bradenton and is accepting new clients. She can be reached at 941-228-8825 or mzollerswim.com.

• Amy Mann and Anita Pope are both ISR instructors who give lessons at Swim Gym of Lakewood Ranch, 5002 Lena Road. They can be reached 941-753-7459 or swimgymlwr.com.

• Becky O'Reilly is a ISR instuctor who gives lessons at her residence in Palmetto. She can be reached at 941-531-0109 or kidswim4life.com.

• Yvette Varnadore is an ISR instructor who gives lessons at her residence in Sarasota. She can be reached at 941-720-1586 or sarasotaswimkids.com.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @RichardDymond.

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