Swim Safe


As summer approaches I have swimming on the brain. My girls both head off to camp where swimming is a large part of their day and knowing that they are both competently swimming on their own makes me feel much better about the situation.

Swimming is by far one of our favorite family sports. I joke that John must have been a fish in a past life. And if I had followed one of my youngest passions I would have been a marine biologist. At a young age we could tell the girls had adopted our passion for all things water. For safety sake we knew that we wanted them to learn how to swim as soon as possible. They each took a 7 day “swim safe” class just after turning two with an incredible instructor named Ed Durkin. It is a class that is not for the faint of heart – as kids are immediately handed over to “Mr. Ed” and then released in the water and made to find their way to the edge of the pool. There are a lot of tears and fear but I can honestly say that both our girls learned how to swim and “save themselves” while studying under Mr. Ed. Since learning the basics we’ve now started to focus on real strokes and sustained swimming in the deep end and across the pool.

Emma learns to swim on her back!

This winter we were introduced by a friend to the fabulous Philippa Orszulak (Coach Phil) who teaches at the Boys and Girls Club of Greenwich. (I am obsessed with the Boys and Girls Club on many levels but that is another story for another time!) My girls immediately fell for Coach Phil. She strikes the perfect balance between structure and fun. Safety is always a priority and affirmation is delivered by the handful! She is firm in her teaching tactics but always allows room for play and a back and forth dialogue between teacher and student. I can’t recommend her enough!

Young Sophie masters her first dive with help from Coach Phil!

We all know a friend who has had a scary water experience and sadly way too many children drown each year because of inadequate training and poor supervision. Children need to know that water is dangerous and responsible behavior around the pool and ocean is mandatory. There is room for fun, but it must be safe fun. I hope these tips from Phil help you to get your brave little ones swimming stronger this summer!

Q&A with Philippa Orszulak on Learning to Swim

What is your swimming background?

I am Red Cross Certified in Water Safety Instruction, Lifeguard Training, Lifeguard Training Instruction, and CPR/FirstAid. I have also taught swimming for the last 23 years.

How did you learn how to teach children how to swim?

I competitively swam in Larchmont New York for Orienta Beach Club and for Mamaroneck High School. I also have coached and continue to coach swimming at the Greenwich YWCA and The Boys and Girls Club of Greenwich.

What is your recommendation for children who are really petrified of the water?

Take it slow. Spend as much time as a family in the water whether it be the beach, pool or bathtub. Make it fun but use teaching moments throughout. Sing and play. Use familiar toys to keep your child engaged.

At what age are kids really ready to learn how to swim? Can you ever teach them too young?

Two is the best time for me to teach children. There is not as much seperation anxiety and cognitively they have a better understanding of their own coordination. I have done baby classes at 6 months to two years, and that is more of a play and water familiarity class.

How do yo teach a child to float on their back? 

Like anything you do with a child, you need to repeat instructions throughout. Eyes need to be focused on the ceiling and shoulders should be back and relaxed. You tell them to raise their belly button to the top of the water’s surface. I hold random items above their faces while talking to them so they can focus on that (ie ball, fish, and even my face or hands). Sometimes I have them put their hands behind their head and lay down like a pillow in bed and relax.

At what age should they be focusing on learning strokes? 

It is different with every child. I believe each child is unique. I practice all strokes. You need to keep the child engaged throughout your lesson. Introducing all the different strokes allows some diversity. I start this from age two after they have mastered some basic freestyle.

Is it best to teach them to keep their faces above or below the waterline when they are learning?

Getting their faces wet and in the water is essential. I feel they expend so much energy keeping their head above water that they don’t know to relax in the water. Dog paddle is fine as long as they are moving on to getting their faces in the water as the next step.

When teaching strokes what order should they be taught in? 

It is all individual. I have had students that knew backstroke before freestyle. The importance is safety. As long as you can make it to the wall to safety, I don’t care what stroke it is. Freestyle/crawl stroke are your basic stroke and then we move through backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly. I also like input from the student. I try to teach them that they should use a resting stroke when they become tired.

Should children look forward or down at the bottom when swimming strokes?

I think down initially and then forward once they have learned their stokes and move towards swim team level. I find it easier for them to keep their flutter kick up when looking down.

Are swim “floaties” a good or bad idea?

I don’t use floaties when teaching and you know which kids have. Their legs tend to be perpendicular in the water and they have difficulty kicking. I feel floaties breed a false sense of security in the child and the parent. These are not coastguard approved floatation devices. Parents need to get in the water with their children and help in that way.

What are the safest tools to use as you are teaching them? Kick boards, noodles, etc?

I use kick boards, noodles, diving rings and toys. You need to be aware at all times that the children will go after them even if they don’t know how to swim. Large floats are a hazard because a child could get under and be hidden. Safety is number one. Teaching the rights and wrongs about swimming and safety is important. Having a blast while doing it is essential!

*For lessons with Coach Phil please call Sukie McFadden at the Boys and Girls Club (203) 869-3224.

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  1. Kathy Altomaro says:

    Phil is a legend as one of the sweetest , competent coaches ever! Glad the girls had the benefit of her teaching!

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