FAIRFIELD — The phone call usually starts with something like, “You’ve probably never taught someone as old.”
Debbie Koening lets the caller continue to talk until they reach the point they want to talk about swim lessons. If they are 94 or older, she can assure them their statement is true. (Her oldest student was 93 when he learned.)
Anyone younger than that is just wading themselves through a nervous introduction.
Koenig is the woman behind Debbie’s Swim School, a school that puts an emphasis on teaching adults to swim, in the hopes of avoiding tragedy. She estimates she’s taught thousands of adults to swim over the years.
People such as Angela Caragan, 32, who learned when she was 30.
There was no pool around when she grew up, so the need to learn the basics wasn’t an issue. Caragan developed a fear of the water, worried that if she fell in a pool, she would drown.
“It’s a life skill I needed to learn,” she said. “I decided it was time to tackle something I was afraid of.”
The staff at Debbie’s Swim School used baby steps to get her comfortable in the water. Caragan would hang on to the side, never let her feet off the pool floor and wouldn’t put her face in the water.
After her first few lessons, she was able to put one ear in the water. Then, the other. Eventually, her face.
The Vallejo resident continues lessons, perfecting her technique. Time in the swimming pool is also part of her workout routine.
Learning to swim has opened a whole new world, she said.
“Last year, I went snorkeling for the first time,” she said.
Jet skiing and boating are two other water activities she’s very comfortable doing. Kayaking is next.
Like many adults, Caragan said it was hard to step up and ask for help. When she told people she didn’t know how to swim, they were shocked, she said.
Suisun City resident Melanie Huff, 37, had cancer when she was 2. Swimming was out of the question. She couldn’t get water in her ears, for fear of ear infections that could compromise her health.
That didn’t stop her as a teen from trying wake boarding and water skiing.
“I would stay up on purpose,” she said. If she fell, she never let her head get under water. “I had a fear of being under deep water.”
After watching her daughter take lessons at Debbie’s Swim School, Huff decided it was time for her to learn.
Deaf in one ear and with only 30 percent hearing in the other, Huff found Koening the perfect teacher as she was willing to do signs under the water. Huff removes her hearing aids before getting in the pool.
“My coordination has gotten better and I’m more confident in myself,” Huff said of learning to swim. “I’ve come a long way.”
Huff and Caragan are now water aerobics instructors.
Vinard Junio, 22, recently enlisted in the Navy. They advised him to take swimming lessons. He said his fear of the water came from his own near-drowning experience when he was 10, when he went into the deep end of a pool and had to be pulled from the water.
“I was terrified,” he said.
He stayed out of the pool for many years. Rather than admit he couldn’t swim, he was the one who volunteered to watch the kids at pool parties.
“I have no fear anymore,” he said. “Now I know I can survive.”
The Vallejo resident is now in the pool about five days a week. He hopes to go jet skiing and scuba diving. His two young children, 2 and 8 months, will learn to swim much earlier, Junio said.
All three students praised Koening for her approach in letting them find their comfort zone in the water before learning to swim.
Koening loves to teach but sees her mission as one of prevention, too. When she was about 5, her younger sister, about 8 months old at the time, managed to crawl into a pool in their grandfather’s backyard. Koening pulled her safely out of the water.
“Her eyes were huge,” Koening said. “I knew she was in a critical state.”
Her sister survived.
Having a near-drowning experience, witnessing one, or seeing someone drown are the main reasons adults decide to learn swimming, said Koening and one of her instructors, Kazandra Gudnason.
When Gudnason was 12, she pulled a younger cousin, who was drowning, out of the swimming pool.
One of her students almost drowned as a child. In a separate accident, the woman watched her sister drown in front of her. The woman didn’t like to take showers because she had such a fear of the water. In less than 10 lessons, she was able to kick across the pool, Gudnason said of the woman.
Statistics from the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation indicate that 10 people drown every day and 80 percent of them are adults or young adults. They are just as tragic as a youth drowning, Koening said.
“A 30-year-old is still someone’s child,” she said.
Koening started her swim school in 1992 in Napa. Today, she has a dozen instructors and more than 15 locations.
Her reward comes in the form of phone calls from students on vacation, telling her they’ve stepped into the hotel pool for the first time.
The Swimming Saves Lives Foundation estimates more than one-third of all adults can’t swim the length of a 25-yard pool.
“A lot of people out there don’t know how to swim,” Koening said. “They don’t need to be embarrassed. Once they learn it can transform their entire life.”
That, and possibly save their life and the lives of others as well.
Reach Amy Maginnis-Honey at 427-6957 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/amaginnisdr.