Then: SWIMkids USA was started in a backyard pool in 1971 by Lana Whitehead, then a high-school teacher and mother of a young son, who was asked by the YMCA to create a swim program for infants. Whitehead went on to complete master’s level research on the benefits of swimming lessons on early brain development, author several books on the topic, and develop a method that has helped thousands of toddlers learn to swim. SWIMkids’ current facility opened in 1998, with three warm-water shallow pools, a brightly colored gymnastics area, and interior decorating that suggests a vacation at the beach. Classes have been purposely kept small — typically three students to one instructor — to make sure there’s plenty of hands-on attention. For many classes, parents are also often in the pool with the little ones. SWIMkids’ rigorous attention to safety training for staff and its annual public Safety Days, which offer swim lessons, fun and food, all for free, have helped the facility stand out in the region. The staff are often called upon to provide expert interviews with local media, and the facility has been featured many times in the national press.

Now: Under Lana Whitehead’s leadership, SWIMkids has emerged as a national role model for teaching the young to swim. Under the WaterSMART Babies program, classes are available for infants as young as 2 months, with parents participating in the instruction. “We’re getting these babies comfortable in the water as soon as possible so they never develop any fear,” says Creativity Specialist and Aquatic Instructor Britt Kimball. “Some of those very little ones can float and do all sorts of things. It’s not uncommon for a child as young as two years to be able to dive in, roll over, and float.” The kids then go on to start the rudiments of swimming, and by three years many can cross the pool safely, rolling on their backs to float and rest as needed. Classes continue all the way to advanced competition level.

SWIMkids also reaches out to the special needs community. “Much of our curriculum addresses brain development,” says Kimball. “Water is so amazing — kids focus better when they are in the water and all of their senses are stimulated at once.” Special-needs instruction is tailored to the child, and classes are kept small. Children in these classes have gone on to medal in the Special Olympics.