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Holding on to the side of the municipal swimming pool with my head under the water during the summer of ’71, the instructor asked me a question: “How many fingers can you see?” I had the correct response to experience a small victory in the effort to learn how to swim. Unfortunately, opening my eyes under water was about the only thing I learned how to do that summer.

More swim lessons followed at age 6, and then another round at age 7. I had developed a hatred for the water with this unpleasantness that my parents kept putting me through each summer. After three years, I guess they gave up and on future trips to the pool, I stayed in the shallow end.

During the summer of 1977, the baseball team that I played on won the city’s Little League championship. The coach arranged for a celebratory party to take place at the local swimming pool. I loved playing on the team and it felt great to experience the thrill of winning a championship. But I skipped the party because I was afraid that my fear of the deep end of the pool would be exposed.

My coach, who lived across the street from us, came home that day from the swim party and saw me playing kickball in a nearby vacant lot. He approached and tossed a baseball that had been signed by all of my teammates in my direction. He didn’t say anything and I perceived him to be disappointed. I was embarrassed and we never had another interaction.

A couple of years later, I was with my older brother at the “sand pits” — a spot along the river that ran through our section of the state where teenagers would get together. For some reason that afternoon, my brother — who was 8 years older than me — tossed me into the river. I couldn’t touch, it was deeper than I thought. But I started to swim and I’ve been swimming ever since.

Swimming had become a difficult hurdle to overcome during my childhood and I bet there’s a lot of other people out there with similar stories. Swim lessons are effective for most and I’m not sure why they didn’t take with me. Perhaps it was my fear that got in the way or maybe I couldn’t connect with the instructors.

While talking with Daniel Mikula, Clemens Community Pool director, last week about the reopening of the local pool, he mentioned his own childhood experience.

“I’ll never forget, I think I was 4, and we had a pool in our backyard and so my parents rightfully said ‘you need to know how to do this,’” he said.

“So they took me to the pool that was close to our house and there was this wonderful coach there who took me up on the diving board at 4 years old, threw me in the deep end and said, ‘swim to the side.’ I made it to the side and she said, ‘Congratulations, you know how to swim.’”

Mikula reminded me that this was in a different era.

“I don’t run lessons that way,” he laughed. “I learned quickly though.”

He went on to become a very accomplished swimmer, including triathlons, and competed collegiately at Xavier University in Ohio.

Although my experiences at a young age might not suggest it, I believe swim lessons are a must for young children and gaining that skill can save lives. They should be returning to Clemens Community Pool in the near future.

“(I’m) looking forward to starting some more learn-to-swim programs, getting some kids in,” Mikula told the Philomath School Board last week. “We will be offering learn-to-swim programs probably within the next month to two months. Again, some of that has to do with working 1-to-1 in close proximity so we’re sort of waiting for things to clear (with the pandemic) a little bit there.”

Mikula said swim lessons will be conducted primarily by the lifeguards. 

“They’ll have curriculum that they go through in different stages,” he said. “It can start as young as 5 years old, learn the basics, and then we’ll develop them. Hopefully by the time we’re done with that program, they’ll be prepared and ready and if they’d like to join a swim team, they could do that.”

Since Clemens Community Pool opened to the public in December 1960, countless Philomath children have learned how to swim at the local facility. Prior to the pool’s opening, too many youngsters in the region had lost their lives to drowning and a local couple wanted to help.

The announcement of plans to build an indoor, heated swimming pool came in June 1959 and represented a gift from Rex and Ethel Clemens. From that very first article that mentions a new pool, swim lessons were a big part of the conversation.

The Philomath School Board at the time established what it called the “Philomath Recreation Department” and classes in swimming and life-saving would be part of the program in addition to recreational swimming. Then-Principal Ralph Gardner said that swimming classes would be a part of the physical education program at the junior-senior high school.

In the fall of 1960 as the pool project neared completion, it was announced that in-school swimming instruction would be concentrated on the seventh-grade level. As for swim lessons, those began in January 1961 and were offered on Saturday mornings for children and Monday evenings for adults.

From the time the pool opened until the end of summer in 1961, hundreds of children and adults received instruction. In 1966, the school district sponsored a learn-to-swim program of 15 free lessons for first-grade students.

“For some time, parents and school authorities in the district have been shocked by the number of drownings of children in boats on our Oregon lakes, streams and even in the ocean,” pool office manager Henrietta Hermansen told the Corvallis Gazette-Times in 1966. “So many families around here boat, we thought our youngsters should learn to swim at an early age.”

Swim lessons have a long history here in Philomath and teaching youth how to swim represented a major incentive for the original Clemens donation. As the pool director indicated, hopefully we’ll see them resuming in the near future.

(Brad Fuqua is publisher and editor of the Philomath News. He can be reached at news@philomathnews.com).

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