It’s never too late to learn to swim, insists longtime swim instructor Nancy Stoller Kunau, 59, who teaches aquatic activities in southeastern Idaho.
She has been teaching most of her life—43 years, in fact—at the Burley Swimming Pool, making her students laugh along with her as she sings and dances her way through lessons for students of all ages.
“I love everything about teaching people to swim,” she said. “It’s an amazing and gratifying experience. It allows me to be in the water for hours, doing the silliest stuff imaginable. They call it swimming instruction, but I believe it’s more like singing and dancing in the water. It never gets boring or routine.”
Kunau said swimming is a life skill she can teach any adult or child in 15 minutes
“With all the canals, rivers, lakes, and reservoirs we have around here, you’ve got to be able to swim. For that reason—being safe in and around water—I never get tired of teaching.”
Kunau said managing your breathing is the key to learning to swim.
“After you master breathing, the strokes are the easy part,” she said. “Teaching people to swim, you can see their confidence grow as they learn breathing, steps to strokes, and then master the stroke.”
Most of Kunau’s students are children.
“About 80 percent are younger than 12,” she said. “About 20 percent are adults older than 45. No matter what your age, learning to swim is like climbing Mount Everest. It’s one breath at a time.”
To teach breathing techniques to children, one of Kunau’s favorite exercises is to have them warm up doing 10 bobs.
“Bum on the bottom, bum on the bottom, bum on the bottom … Go!” she sings.
A student, Blair Harper, 7, grins as she does it.
Without realizing it, Blair and Kunau’s other students have learned to hold their breath and to not be afraid of being under water.
Students want to please Kunau, said Blair’s mother, Alli Webb Harper.
“They’ll do anything for her,” Harper said. “At her lessons, you never see kids holding on to the side of the pool or crying. They jump right in. She keeps them moving.”
Harper, 30, personally understands how persuasive Kunau can be. As a child, she was one of Kunau’s students.
Harper still remembers some songs and phrases.
To stand straight, “be like spaghetti.” To spin, “be rigatoni.”
“At the beginning of summer I ask my kids what they want to do,” Harper said. “They always say, ‘Swim with Nancy.’ This is their fourth summer to take lessons. I want my kids to be confident in the water.”
Like Harper, Skye Burch Fletcher, 32, grew up taking lessons from Kunau. She eventually worked as a swimming instructor and lifeguard during high school and college.
“It’s come full circle now with my kids taking lessons from her,” Fletcher said. “Nancy has had such an impact on me that I still remember her songs. She’s just the greatest.”
To teach the arm movement for the front crawl, Nancy sings, “Down, down, down, and around, around, around.”
Climbing down the ladder to the bottom of the pool in the deep end, she sings, “Watch your nose and watch your chin, bottom of the pool, let’s begin.”
While teaching, Kunau recalls how she felt when she learned to swim. Her mother, Sandy Stoller, brought her and her siblings to the Neptune City Pool in Rupert for lessons.
“We lived out on the farm about 16 miles one way from town. Mom signed us up for back-to-back lessons to minimize the trips to town. That resulted in lots of water time for me and established my love of swimming,” she said. “It’s an ultimate equalizer. Nobody cares what you look like. You don’t have to do your hair, and you only have to wear one item of clothing, a swim suit.”
At age 15, Kunau took an American Red Cross Lifeguard Course.
“I’m still a certified lifeguard today.”
A year later, she passed the American Red Cross Water Safety Instruction course.
“I’ve been teaching lessons ever since.”
Kunau often reminds parents about the benefits of swimming.
“It builds endurance, provides overall fitness, and it just makes the body feel great.”
She offers advice to parents.
“Take your children swimming—often,” she said. “A dozen times a year is not asking too much. Get in the pool with your kids. They love that. During lessons, put your phone away and watch—seriously watch your children swimming and having the time of their life.”
She said no matter how many times she has done it, “it’s still so much fun to teach 5- to 55-year-olds to jump into deep water and swim from point A to point B. I don’t know of another place where you’ll find more joy and hear more laughter than in a swimming pool.” ISI