The 'Swim Whisperer' Teaches Kids To Be Water-Safe : NPR Ed For 20 years, Conrad Cooper has been helping children in Los Angeles learn to swim by earning his young students' unwavering trust.
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The 'Swim Whisperer' Teaches Kids To Be Water-Safe

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The 'Swim Whisperer' Teaches Kids To Be Water-Safe

The 'Swim Whisperer' Teaches Kids To Be Water-Safe

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's visit a different kind of classroom.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Whoa.

GREENE: Those are students in Conrad Cooper's class. They're learning to swim. Cooper's been teaching children and also some adults to be safe in the water for some two decades now. Parents call him the Swim Whisperer. He has gained an international reputation, and he's part of our series 50 Great Teachers. Here's Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR's Code Switch team.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: If you want to learn to swim from Conrad Cooper, you have to be ready to go old school. Mr. Cooper doesn't play around.

CONRAD COOPER: If you think this is someplace you can come, we're going to do monkey walk on the side of the pool and sing songs, you're in the wrong class. We don't do those things here.

BATES: Here are some more things he doesn't do.

COOPER: I don't blow bubbles. We don't play games. We don't back float, much of that kind of thing. It's pretty much let's go swim, and we get right to it right away.

BATES: Tough rules and not for everyone. But enough folks want to abide by them that there's always a waiting list for his classes. It all started accidentally. In 1994, Cooper and his wife, Londa, had just moved into a new home in the View Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. It had a large pool and the Coopers hired a man to teach their niece and several of her friends to swim. After watching him, Cooper decided he could do that.

COOPER: Now swim to me.

BATES: He started teaching a little that summer. The next year, Cooper quit his sales job at UPS and taught full-time, and Swim to Me was born. Word quickly spread about this tall, brown man with dreadlocks and Pacific Islander tattoos who could coax scaredy-cats into the water.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Wow.

BATES: Classes run from around Easter through Labor Day. They usually last an hour for five consecutive days and cost a little over $200. Over the years, Cooper's clientele, like his neighborhood, has changed. In the beginning...

COOPER: Our classes were primarily neighborhood kids, friends, family and African-Americans.

BATES: But as word circulated, he briefly taught in private suburban pools and his families became very diverse. When Cooper decided to teach solely in his home pool in LA, they came to him from all over. Today, some families come from as far away as the Middle East and the East Coast.

COOPER: We have people who schedule vacations around swim classes now.

BATES: Helicopter parents are politely asked to find a landing pad and stay there, even when their kids don't want to go into the water.

COOPER: After two or three times in the pool with me, they recognize, OK, this guy is serious. He's not taking no for an answer. I'm going to do this. Mom and Dad are passing me back to him. I'm still crying and it's not working, so I may as well go with the program.

MATTHEW: Hi, Conrad.

COOPER: Hi, Matthew. How are you, Matthew?

BATES: Ten children, a little rainbow tribe ranging from 2 to 5 years old, carefully settle on the poor stairs in the shallow end.

COOPER: The girls are going to go first.

MATTHEW: OK and then...

COOPER: Then you can go. Is that OK?

MATTHEW: Yeah.

COOPER: Thank you, buddy.

BATES: Cooper swims to the middle of the warm, saltwater pool. One by one, the kids paddle out to him. He whispers approval and encouragement and then points them to the pool's far edge.

COOPER: Let's swim to Mommy and Daddy. Can - need you to kick your legs.

BATES: Tiny Logan McCrea is so small he's still wearing waterproof swim diapers. But he gamely puts his face in the water and powers over to his parents, who are sitting in chairs that ring the pool.

COOPER: Kick, Logie (ph). Kick, Logie. Kick, Logie - atta-boy.

BATES: A few kids are a little hesitant to let go of the edge and swim out. Cooper gently coaxes them, and one by one, they swim toward him and place their little hands into his big ones. Some climb right into his arms for a hug and wait for further instructions.

COOPER: Keep kicking your legs. You're doing fine. Keep going. Keep going. Keep going.

BATES: Their hard work is interspersed with fun, like jumping off a large rock that serves as a diving board. And to show that they're really comfortable in the water, the kids rocket to the bottom of the pool to pick up a water-themed toy of their choice. First, you have to use the correct name, though.

COOPER: What's this?

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: It's not a starfish.

KALEISHA: A sea star.

COOPER: Thank you, Kaleisha (ph).

BATES: There's also a four-inch Ariel "The Little Mermaid" and a tiny plastic scuba diver from a TV show that some of us old folks might find familiar.

COOPER: Loyd - let's go get Loyd Bridges.

BATES: Everyone does his own sea hunt, diving down and emerging triumphant, a toy in hand. To soon class is over. As 2-year-old Dove Houston towels off, her mom, Meredith, marvels at the transformation.

MEREDITH HOUSTON: The first day that she was here, she was just like every other kid, just screaming and scared. And by - I think by - like, Wednesday she was turned into a little fish.

BATES: Caroline Collins says it was the same for her 5-year-old Nate.

CAROLINE COLLINS: He cried, like, the first two days and then after that, by the end of the week, he was jumping off that rock. And he had no swim experience prior to Conrad.

BATES: Conrad Cooper says his students don't need prior swim experience.

COOPER: Swimming is the easy part. It was the trust part, I think, is the most difficult part for them.

BATES: And he's won their trust. So much so that last year, some of the children Cooper taught two decades ago returned with their own children so he can teach them. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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