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Earning your water wings

They are ready to learn the finer points of a summertime skill that most of us take for granted.

The pack of energetic pre-teens jumped in the Nevada Union High School pool last week to hear Sam Corker and his fellow Penguin Swim Team instructors explain the finer points of being safe in the water.

They heard tips on how to wait at least 30 minutes after eating before going in the water, how to properly float and how to use flotation devices to rescue their friends in distress.



What they didn’t bargain for was a discourse Corker and his fellow instructors told about avoiding hazards of a different kind, brought up by a student who asked about the proper etiquette should nature’s call happen during a lesson.

Do the unthinkable, and your lesson could be over before it even started, Corker said, to a chorus of giggles and hollers.




It would be hard to expect anything less from a group of kids with a quirky sense of humor, but the discussion was probably inevitable as people of many stripes either return to area pools to hone their skills or receive their chlorine-infused baptism as they learn to swim for the first time.

It’s a rite of passage taken by infants, toddlers and teens that has local pools brimming with both novice and expert practitioners.

While those aspiring to join club teams worked on timing or new strokes, Grass Valley resident Karen Rodriguez is still working on having her two children, Emily, 6, and Nicholas, 5 earn their water wings.

“It’s all about comfort,” Karen Rodriguez said. Last year, she said, her son sat at the edge of the Nevada Union pool, watching his sister. Now he’s jumping in the pool with confidence, she said.

“He’s learned from his sister, and she’s definitely upped the ante, because she has no fear.”

With toddlers and young children, developing a comfort level in the pool is perhaps more important than learning strokes, said Francis Giuliani, 18, a recent Nevada Union graduate who serves as the head instructor for the Penguin Swim Team. Giuliani is one of a handful of certified instructors that has learned CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation), water rescue training and basic first aid, and knows how to use defibrillators.

“It’s important that the kids know they can trust you,” Giuliani said.

In addition to teaching swimmers with several years’ experience, Giuliani spends time introducing 16-month-olds, assisted by their parents, to the cool pool, lightly splashing their faces and singing nursery rhymes while gently placing their hands in the water.

Classes with private instructors and large group-like settings abound in western Nevada County. In addition to classes offered by the Penguin Swim Team, Nevada City is offering several day, evening and weekend sessions this summer.

Additionally, the western Nevada County chapter of the Red Cross provides lifeguard classes to those 15 years old or older. The elements include CPR training, and learning water rescue techniques, such as pulling people from the water.

Those who have completed between 36 and 40 hours of training earn certification as a lifeguard, said Susan King, director of health and safety for the western Nevada County chapter of the American Red Cross.

Swim instructors have to be at least 17 years old, King said.

Jim Wheeler, the parks and recreation manager for Nevada City, will be teaching nearly 400 students this summer, and the list is expected to grow.

Wheeler, 40, a former parks and recreation director in the East Bay and a swimmer for all but three years of his life, trains future water safety instructors and oversees the lessons at the Pioneer Park pool.

For those getting their first solo introduction to the water, Wheeler recommends students no younger than 3 years old. The Red Cross, he said, has guidelines for teaching swimmers as young as 18 months old.

Students must have both the motor skills and mental ability to independently follow instructions to swim, Wheeler said, and he’s rarely seen it in children younger than 3.

While they swim, it’s important to feel safe and confident. That’s why, with younger swimmers, he encourages mom or dad to be close by. It’s OK if they want to bring a video or still camera along to capture the moment, Wheeler said.

For older children without experience in the pool, “you should still teach them to be careful, but don’t scare them,” he added.

Over at Memorial Park in Grass Valley, Zachary, 6, and Patrick Gilberg, 5, practiced strokes under the watchful eye of their mother, Barbara. Even though both took lessons last year, Barbara Gilberg said she wants them to have more than a rudimentary understanding of the joys – and potential perils – of the water.

“I want them to be really competent swimmers, to be safe in the water, even if I turn my back for a minute. I want them to be safe and comfortable.”


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