A day at the pool or the beach can be relaxing, but for someone who doesn’t know how to swim, it can quickly turn deadly.

That’s something the staff of the Hermiston Family Aquatic Center is hoping to avoid. They’re teaching swim lessons to more than 1,700 people this summer, from toddlers to adults. The adult class is new this year, spurred by a recent drowning death of a Umatilla man who jumped into the Columbia River to save his son despite not knowing how to swim.

“It was heartbreaking,” aquatic center manager Kasia Robbins said. “We want to try to prevent it from happening ever again.”

The new class, held Tuesday and Thursday evenings at 8:05 p.m., has attracted participants from ages 17 to 57 (the class is open to ages 16 and up). The HFAC is also offering more children’s lessons than usual this year and as a result still has slots available. Usually the aquatic center has difficulty finding enough summer staff to meet the demand for lessons, but Robbins said this year they have more staff than ever before, at over 100.

There are two levels of parent and tot classes for infants and toddlers to get used to the water, followed by six different levels of 25-minute classes. On Monday morning a mix of skill levels were practicing in different parts of the pool. Two very young girls were practicing bouncing up and down in the shallow end to keep their heads above water, while in the lap pool a handful of elementary school-aged children used kickboards and practiced swimming freestyle.

“The young kids are learning the water safety aspect, when is it safe to get in the water and how to exit and enter,” Robbins said. “Other kids learn how to stay afloat, how a stroke affects their endurance. It really ranges with age.”

On the more advanced end of the spectrum is the hour-long junior lifeguard class, which gives teens a taste of the exercises they would practice to be a lifeguard — potentially lifesaving skills whether they choose to work at a pool next summer or not.

“They’re going over training that lifeguards go through,” recreation supervisor Brandon Artz said. “They get to shadow some too. It’s a good opportunity to learn.”

On Monday morning the junior lifeguard class was treading water in the lap pool, passing a 10 pound brick between them with encouragement from instructor Brittin Braithwaite as some students struggled to complete the task.

Afterward, she said it was important for lifeguards to build endurance and mental toughness, which is why she tries to push her students to keep going even when they said they were too tired. The HFAC’s real lifeguards have to swim nonstop for one hour each week during their inservice days.

Braithwaite said much of the work the staff at the aquatic center does is preventative, from teaching water skills to asking kids not to run next to the pool.

“People think lifeguards save people from drowning, but really we’re preventing drownings,” she said.

Alysia Garcia, 19, teaches all levels of swim lessons at the HFAC. This is her third year.

“I like working with kids because it gives me practice,” she said. “I want to be a teacher.”

She said most of her lessons are focused on helping kids be safe in the water, so that if they get caught in a current at the beach or venture too far out and get tired they can get themselves to safety or at least stay afloat until they are rescued.

New at the aquatic center

Adding swim lessons isn’t the only thing the Hermiston Family Aquatic Center has adjusted this year. The aquatic center’s public swim hours have been streamlined to 1:10-6:45 p.m. every day.

People can also hold semi-private parties from 9:30-11 a.m. on weekends — they might have to share with a couple of other small parties but it is cheaper (only $150) than renting the entire pool and they will have their own area to spread out. During public swim hours HFAC is also adding private cabanas that can be rented for $10 for two hours or $20 for a day.

Prices have been adjusted as well. Infants under a year old now have free admission, with kids age nine and under $4 a day (children under nine must be accompanied by an adult). Ages 10-17 or 55-plus are $5 and all other admission is $6. The HFAC is offering half-price admission to public swim after 5 p.m.

“This discount is designed for working families who get off in the evening and can’t make it to an all day public swim,” Artz said. “We want them to enjoy the last two hours of the pool day.”

Chantel Osborne is providing concessions this year, which includes the addition of Dippin’ Dots. The HFAC is also selling tickets for its annual Stars and Stripes Fourth of July Party.

For more information about the Hermiston Family Aquatic Center call 541-289-7665.

News Editor

Hermiston Herald news editor and reporter covering city government and economic development in Hermiston, Umatilla, Stanfield and Echo.

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