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Youngsters learn water survival skills at HR pool

Late morning during weekdays at the Hood River Aquatics Center is usually a quiet time, the only action coming from a few solitary lap swimmers plying the lanes in the big pool.

But recently, the pitter patter of tiny feet — or, rather, the splish splash of tiny arms and legs — has disrupted the normal calm.

All the fuss — sometimes literally — has to do with the Infant Swimming Research lessons being taught every day at the pool by Alyssa Nau.

“Quiet arms,” Nau tells 3-year-old Owen Stolte as he floats on his back in front of her. He stops flailing his arms as Nau speaks calmly to him and he realizes he can float without moving them. She gently tries to roll him over but he easily turns on his back again, his face well out of the water and beaming at the ceiling as his mom yells words of encouragement from the side of the pool.

Owen is one of five infants and toddlers ranging in age from 15 months to 3 years who are taking part in the three week course. Infant Swimming Research (ISR) is a national organization based in Florida that trains instructors to teach basic water survival skills to infants and toddlers. Nau, a certified ISR instructor who lives in Seattle, came to Hood River to teach the course at the behest of Jennifer Popenoe.

“We’re around water all the time,” said Popenoe who has a 15-month-old daughter, Pica. She and her husband, Bart, are avid windsurfers and outdoor enthusiasts who take Pica with them on their adventures.

“We take her to the beach with us all the time,” Popenoe said. “It only takes a second” for an accident to happen, she added. “I wanted something that would give us a chance to have that second.”

As Pica approached toddlerhood, Popenoe began scouring the Internet for information on how to teach her daughter to swim. She hit upon ISR, contacted the organization and was referred to Nau, the closest certified ISR instructor.

The ISR course normally lasts six weeks, with infants and toddlers having a short, daily session with the instructor for the duration. But because of the small number that had enrolled by the time Nau was to start the class, she opted to shorten it to three weeks and have each participant come for two daily sessions in the pool. So each day from 10 to 11 a.m., and again from 6 to 7 p.m., parents bring their kids to the pool for intense, 10-minute sessions with Nau.

Nau has two different sets of techniques and goals for infants and toddlers. She teaches infants (from 6 to 12 months) how to float on their back with their face out of the water. With toddlers, she teaches a “swim-float-swim” technique, in which they learn to take a few strokes through the water and then turn over on their back and float.

“It’s survival instruction,” Nau says; its aim is to teach infants and toddlers how to float with their faces out of the water — to give parents that “second” Popenoe referred to that could save their child’s life. Along with the lessons, parents who sign up for the course get a book about the 30 years of research that’s gone into ISR, and about what to expect from — and how to prepare their child for — the course.

By last week, about 10 days into the course, parents of all the young swimmers were pleased with the progress they were seeing.

Sarah Muenzer said her 2-year old daughter, Natasha, was “in hysterics” during her first couple of days at the pool, screaming that she didn’t want to go in the water.

“By the end of the first week, she didn’t want to get out of the pool,” Muenzer says, laughing as her daughter jumps into the water with a splash and swims several feet to Nau.

Muenzer says she was motivated to try the lessons because of an upcoming trip to Mexico.

“We thought it would be a good idea for her to know how to swim,” Muenzer says. “It’s so worth it for your child not to be afraid of water, and to know that if they got into a predicament, they could save themselves.”

Not everyone agrees with the idea of forcing infants into the water. A bystander at the pool last week became upset when 16-month-old Temple Lawrence squalled throughout his 10 minutes in the water with Nau. The woman accused the instructor — and Temple’s mother, Brittany Lawrence — of child abuse and threatened to call the authorities.

Nau took it in stride, trying to explain to the hysterical woman that she was a certified infant swimming instructor.

“Some people do that, and don’t even bother to find out what we’re doing,” she said. Temple’s mother was appalled at being accused of abusing her son.

“I want (Temple) to learn survival skills in case there’s an accident,” she said. She, too, was drawn to the classes because of the amount of time she and her husband, who enjoys fishing, spend around water.

“And we want to be able to come to the pool as a family and enjoy it,” she said.

Popenoe plans to get Nau to return to Hood River for another round of ISR classes next spring, just as the outdoor recreation season is gearing up in the Gorge.

“What with everyone doing water sports, it just makes sense,” she said.

For more information about ISR, visit www.infantswim.com. To register for the spring class, call Nau at 253-606-5308.

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