LONG BEACH — The short stretch of water in a swimming pool once looked about as formidable as the English Channel to Charlie Harris.
Harris, who suffers from cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair, had a hard enough time putting on his clothes in the morning, let alone paddling laps in a pool.
But not any longer.
Harris, 35, swims twice a week at California Pools for the Handicapped, a North Long Beach center housing two warm-water pools with ramps for the disabled. The nonprofit facility is the only one of its type in Southern California, providing special pools and instruction at no cost to handicapped people from Inglewood to Garden Grove and as far inland as Pasadena.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Harris practices the awkward backstroke he has learned during two years of dogged tutoring at California Pools. Legs trailing behind him, the Santa Fe Springs resident chops into the water with his good right arm while the splayed fingers on his left hand occasionally swipe the surface.
It takes him more than a minute to swim one length of the center's 37-foot pool. But to Harris, each lap of his agonizingly slow journey is as good as an Olympic victory.
"Learning to swim proved to me that I can do anything," Harris said. "I know now that if there's something I want to do, I'll find a way to do it."
Joe King, director of operations at California Pools for the Handicapped, says that is the kind of optimism the center tries to build.
"The most important thing we do is change attitudes," said King. "When a person is disabled, the first thing they become aware of is what they can't do. We teach them that with the right instruction and motivation they can do anything."
King said the swim center also provides a perfect setting for physical therapy, a place where the handicapped can build strength and stamina. The 90-degree water of the two pools relax muscles and help banish pain, he said.
"When a disabled person is in the water, gravity is no longer their menace," said King, who is a wheelchair-bound polio victim. "Muscles that struggle to move an arm on land can do it with the buoyancy of the water."
Jim Gleason, a 35-year-old paraplegic, agreed.
"In the chair, there's pressure on you all the time, on your legs, your back," Gleason said. "In the water, you're free."
Gleason, a Lennox resident, has no movement from the chest down. Although his arms are 80% disabled, Gleason has built up the muscles by swimming, adding an inch of muscle to each of his biceps. "I can fool most people into thinking I've got full use of my arms," he said.
Floating on his back, Gleason windmills his arms to propel himself through the water at a respectable clip, logging up to two miles during a three-hour workout.
"I can't figure out what kind of stroke I'm doing," he said while taking a breather during a recent workout. "I just made it up. But I can go a mile without stopping, take a break, then go for another mile."
Gleason broke his back at 18 by, as he jokingly puts it, "doing a deep dive into shallow water" at the beach. He didn't swim again for eight years.
Then a friend tricked Gleason by throwing him into a river while they were camping in Northern California. Gleason flailed away but managed to swim back to the bank. He's been swimming ever since.
"The thing people got to realize when they first come here is you got to do it for yourself," Gleason said. "Nobody's going to do it for you."
It is just that kind of attitude that led to the formation of California Pools for the Handicapped.
The center's 72-year-old founder, Evelyn duPont-Evans, contracted polio in the early 1950s. A former member of the Canadian national swim team, duPont-Evans was told by doctors that she would never walk again. Undeterred, duPont-Evans began taking daily dips in the warm waters of her backyard pool in Long Beach, where she had moved with her husband. After a decade of therapy, duPont-Evans had gained enough strength to walk with the aid of a cane.
Seeing the benefits of warm water and swimming, duPont-Evans opened her pool to the disabled of the area. Ultimately, the demand was greater than the backyard pool could handle, so duPont-Evans founded California Pools for the Handicapped in 1963 and established the swim center. Although duPont-Evans does not participate in the day-to-day operation of the center, she retains the title of executive director and does fund-raising work.
The center, on Long Beach Boulevard near the Compton border, operates on a $190,000 annual budget funded mostly through private and corporate donations in addition to a $10,500 grant from the city. The pools are used more than 18,000 times a year, according to King, the operations manager.