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Instincts Afloat : Believing in What Comes Naturally, Veteran Swimming Instructor of Laguna Niguel Makes Videotape to Help Save Young Lives


LAGUNA NIGUEL — Every spring and summer, it was the same bad news--Rita Curtis would hear stories of children drowning in neighborhood pools.

"This always gives me a chill, all these terrible accidents," she sighed. "So many kids getting hurt; it's very painful."

Local health officials say that drowning is the greatest cause of injury deaths for children 1 to 4 in the county and statewide, but Curtis knew it doesn't have to be that way. For more than five decades, the 79-year-old Laguna Niguel resident has taught infants as young as 1 year old how to swim.

Curtis' classes have been small, often one-on-one, and the question was always: how to reach a larger audience, especially parents who could instruct their children themselves? In this video age, the answer was "Becoming Water Safe With Rita Curtis," a 75-minute cassette that has received good reviews for its content and professional style.

"This is a way for people to do it right at home, in the pool or even in the bathtub" with their babies, she said. "I know this can make a difference . . . lives can be saved."

The video, produced by the Video Studio in Laguna Niguel, emphasizes Curtis' basic philosophy that youngsters can feel as natural in the water as they do on land. Once introduced to an unfamiliar environment in a gentle way, they will adapt quickly to it, she said. Curtis stresses this, reflecting the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that no child should be forcefully submerged in any training program.

"A child has to learn how his body reacts in water, that it's not the same as being on land," she explained. "From there, (the water) becomes a comfortable place."

The video seems to support that. There's Curtis, a grandmotherly figure in a sun hat, standing in the shallow end of the pool with small children zooming around her like tadpoles. They're enjoying themselves and, most important, they look as if they could handle themselves if a parent weren't around.

Not that Curtis recommends that; she says kids should be supervised and that all the regular precautions need to be taken. But as the incidents of drowning confirm, these steps are not always reliable.

"All the articles about these tragic things never mention learning to swim; they always talk about locking the gate, putting up a fence, having adults around to observe," Curtis explained. "All of those are good things, but they never point out that a child can protect himself."

Even toddlers can learn. "I've taught babies, oh, about 1 year old, but that's not really the best age," Curtis said. "They can learn, but their retention isn't so good; they tend to forget. The best age (to start) is about 18 months, then they really pick up on everything."

The video package includes a laminated, pool-ready, 28-diagram guide detailing Curtis technique, showing introductory positions and strategies. Curtis prides herself on the approach's simplicity, which uses water games as a tool for building skills.

Parents may enjoy the experience with their sons and daughters, and even mothers fresh from the beauty salon have no need to fret. "I know some mothers don't want to go into the pool . . . (and) get their hair wet," Curtis said, laughing. "Don't worry, you can do this without much bother."

Curtis, who continues to offer one-on-one instruction in the pool behind her home as something of a hobby, has always been comfortable in the water. She was taught how to swim as a child by her mother, a high-dive performer with traveling carnivals during the early 1900s. In those days, poolside leaps were something of a sensation, and Curtis' mother was part of a revue that journeyed mostly along the East Coast.

When her mother shifted to parachuting (Curtis' parents would rise in a hot air balloon, then float down to a sea of circus fans), that didn't mean swimming was forgotten. Even on the road, the family sought out the few pools that were available.

"We moved around a lot; I mean my first cradle was the lid of a trunk, but we always found places to swim," Curtis recalled. "Other children would go home after school, but I would go to the pool with my mother. She was something of a pioneer when it came to swimming."

In fact, once her parents retired in Newark, they lobbied officials to turn local bathhouses into public pools. By the time they were done, Newark had seven public pools, including one for "blacks only" during those segregated times.

Curtis started teaching in her teens and went on to become the first female swim instructor for the YMCA during the early '40s, first in Berkeley and later in Van Nuys. Back then, men and boys swam in the nude, at least until Curtis showed up.

"I tell people that now, and they can't believe that they used to be naked," she said. "But that's how it was. I don't know if they were happy about putting the suits on, but they got used to it."

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