Babies gently splashed, floated, dipped beneath the water and grabbed rubber ducks while anchored to protective mothers in a shallow pool on a recent weekday morning in Mesa.
While it’s common to hear cries as babies get fussy at play dates and other gatherings, these little ones were mostly quiet as they maneuvered their chubby, cherub-like bodies in the warm water at SWIMkids USA on West Guadalupe Road.
SWIMkids USA recently won the 2017 Spirit of Enterprise Social Impact award. Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business honors a company that has made the biggest contribution toward the community’s greater good and shown it is socially focused, making a philanthropic impact.
“It’s such an honor and that’s probably our biggest prize,” SWIMkids USA founder and president Lana Whitehead said, adding:
“This award shines the light on our mission, which is to educate parents about water safety and teach even the youngest children lifesaving swim skills. I am deeply honored to receive this award because this is a problem that is not going away.”
One reason the swim school received the recognition is because Whitehead is considered a pioneer in the swim-float-swim technique aimed at helping people be safer in the water.
With this method, a child kicks in the water while in a prone position for several seconds and then rotates onto their back, where they can rest and breathe. They repeat the swim-float-swim technique until they arrive safely at the side, where they are able to reach up and hold on, Whitehead said.
SWIMkids USA also distinguished itself by providing free Water Smart Infants classes for babies ages 2 to 7 months old (accompanied by a parent) and free CPR classes.
Whitehead is also the national spokeswoman for Water Smart Babies program, a national program in which pediatricians write prescriptions for babies to get swim lessons.
“To be recognized as a Spirit of Enterprise finalist or winner means those founders and leaders are not only building their business, but building their communities,” said Amy Hillman, dean of the W.P. Carey School of Business at ASU.
ASU President Michael M. Crow wrote Whitehead: “This well-deserved recognition speaks to your success as a proven leader and entrepreneur as well as SWIMkids USA’s positive impact in the community. It is this kind of leadership that sets an example for our students and we hope your story will inspire their own spirit of entrepreneurship.”
Arizona ranked second highest in total media-reported deadly drownings among children ages 15 and younger in pools and spas last year, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Pool Safely campaign in conjunction with the USA Swimming Foundation.
Whitehead is well-versed in baby and children’s brain development and she started the swim school in 1971 in California before moving it to Scottsdale in 1978. She relocated the school to Mesa, eventually setting up the business on West Guadalupe Road in 1998.
A grandmother of six and mother of three sons, Whitehead has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Brigham Young University and a master’s degree in special education from ASU. She has written five books on teaching babies and children to swim.
“I love teaching,” Whitehead said. “I love swimming. It’s the one sport that saves your life.”
Whitehead said the first thing the certified swim instructors teach students to do is submerge and learn to float on their back. They also learn how to roll onto their backs.
The youngest swimmers, in the 2-month to 7-month-old range, learn how to push down and stand themselves up on steps in the pool. Older babies in the other classes learn to swim to the side of the pool and climb out.
Instructors tell parents how if they blow on their babies’ faces, the babies will learn to hold their breath when they are put underwater.
Swim classes at the Mesa school last for 30 minutes and people can take them for as long as they want. Many take them on an ongoing basis.
Scott Clore of Mesa said his daughter, Sage, who will be 2 soon, loves swim lessons at SWIMkids USA. The toddler has been taking classes at the business since she was 6 months old.
“I was a competitive swimmer growing up,” he said. “Especially in Arizona, there’s water everywhere. It’s safety; it’s survival skills. You’re just trying to give them those extra few minutes if they ever fall in.”
Shaunna Risinger, general manager of SWIMkids USA, said, “We make swim lessons fun and we do it in a nurturing way but it’s still work.”
“Drowning is the leading cause of accidental death for kids ages 1 to 4,” she added. “Why would you want to take that risk?”
More than 500 swim classes are offered every week at SWIMkids USA, including swim-team practices. About 1,800 children and adults take swimming classes in the summer at SWIMkids USA and other times of year about 1,500 people are enrolled in the swim classes there. The business also offers gymnastics and dance classes.
Whitehead wrote “Incredible Swimfants,” a book teaching parents how to help their children learn to swim, in the 1970s, and dedicated it to Todd Gleason and Brian Westburg, who both drowned at around 2 years old.
Todd and Brian were the sons of some of Whitehead’s friends and their deaths motivated Whitehead to open a swim school.
She has traveled around the world talking about swimming.
The National Drowning Prevention Alliance gave SWIMkids USA the 2011 Community Lifesaver Award. “Aquatics International Magazine” named SWIMkids USA as the “Best of Aquatics: Swim School” in 2012. Whitehead is a 2012 Inductee in the U.S. Swim School Association’s (USSSA) Hall of Fame and she was a member of the Sports Medicine Delegation to China.
Whitehead recently found out the International Swimming Hall of Fame has awarded her the 2018 G. Harold Martin Award for water safety and instruction.
The Water SMART Babies program has been used on a pilot basis in 24 pediatricians’ offices in Maricopa County, according to the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Arizona.