Urban Baby Moira McNeel (right) and a friend at Good-Swim. Photo by Bekah McNeel.
Urban Baby Moira McNeel (right) and a friend at Good-Swim. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Knowing how to swim is one of the most empowering tools a child can have. To be confident around pools, lakes, beaches, and rivers opens up a world of exploration and health at any age.

It’s a gift that my mother gave to me. I don’t remember a time when I could not swim, and have always had a healthy respect and enjoyment for the water. I want to pass that gift on to my Urban Baby, so that we can survive the Texas summers together, immersing ourselves in whichever body of water we can find.

Babies are tricky, though. It’s hard to know how much they can handle and what they are developmentally capable of retaining. Which is why we needed a pro.

Diana Perry is that pro. She doesn’t just teach kids to self-rescue in the water. She teaches them to enjoy swimming. The kids are not taught to fear drowning, but to take control of their bodies and “move the water.” 

Moira McNeel in her swim gear at age 3 months. Courtesy Photo.
Moira McNeel in her swim gear at 3 months of age. Courtesy photo.

It may seem odd to think about swimming lessons at Christmas time, but if having an urban baby has taught me anything, it’s that you have keep your ear to the ground and plan ahead. Which is why I highly recommend watching the Good Swim website and registering as soon as possible for lessons in the spring, summer, and fall of 2015.

We found Perry’s Good Swim lessons through a friend whose daughter was born with limited mobility. They had seen remarkable development in their time with Perry, and suggested that even at six months, Moira would enjoy the lessons and probably pick up some good skills.

“Should I plan to wear my suit, too?” I asked.

“Oh yes, you learn too,” my friend said.

Sure enough, in mid-October, we were in Perry’s shaded, heated, saline pool in Mahncke Park surrounded by a 2-year-old who could swim across the pool underwater, a 1-year-old overcoming water aversion, and another little guy who loved to dive for toys on the bottom of the pool. Their parents were learning, like us, how to encourage presence of mind in the water.

For the littlest children, the ability to orient themselves in the water can be the difference between life and death.

The techniques are terrifying at first (for the parents…the kids are often squealing with delight). As soon as they are confident and competent in the water, children are flipped, thrown, and log rolled. They learn to right themselves and swim to the edge. Even at six months old (she starts infants as young as three months), Perry coached Moira through tumbling off the edge, orienting herself, and reaching for the wall. Holding onto the wall is now Moira’s favorite activity in any pool. She also loves to be flipped underwater. She comes up grinning every time.

For the children who scream the entire time, because some do, Perry’s persistent cool reassures parents, and lets the kids know that the water is no place for tantrums. When she needs to, she has an authoritative voice that can stop a 2-year-old meltdown in its tracks. I saw it with my own eyes.

Perry’s lessons are not just about fun and safety in the water. She is a developmental specialist and uses the alleviated gravity of the pool as a therapeutic setting for children who face mobility challenges. The water weightlessness allows them to develop muscle tone that leads to major leaps forward in gross motor skills.

Diana Perry with Moira McNeel. Photo by Bekah McNeel.
Diana Perry with Moira McNeel. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Perry has a bachelors and masters degree in nursing from the UT Health Science Center (UTHSCSA). She was selected for a medical fellowship in developmental pediatrics, which led to an eight-year teaching stint at UTHSCSA and a dual diagnostic clinic with the school’s psychiatric department through Village of Hope (which has since closed).

She had been teaching swimming off and on from 1979, but when she began again in 2003, it worked in perfect tandem with her medical training.

Perry now diagnoses children through private referral, but sometimes it’s the swimming lessons that reveal the hidden condition.

“I pick up a lot of ‘zebras’ in the water,” Perry said. Zebras are what she calls children who have learning differences or physical challenges.

Perry is like a developmental detective for both children and adults, and she is able to modify her approach accordingly. For instance, with us, she accelerated Moira far more quickly than I had expected and simultaneously identified that I had suffered a childhood bout of Bell’s Palsy. I was impressed, and Moira was thrilled.

For some parents, however, she has been the first person to diagnose serious physical conditions, such as hydrocephalus, leading to cognitive and developmental delay. For others, she has pointed out gaps and insufficiencies in the treatment they were already receiving. Families are able to implement her advice and vastly improve the outcomes for kids working twice as hard to walk, talk, and grow.

“There’s no precedent, book, or instructional manual for most of these kids,” Perry said.

She has a reassuring assertiveness as she talks with parents about their children’s development, which is almost as scary as having your child dunked underwater. She makes the challenges ahead seem entirely manageable and tends to invest deeply in the children, taking a personal interest in their ability to grow and learn beyond expectation.

Having the parents in the water creates a natural forum to discuss their concerns, which she takes more seriously than some pediatricians.

“My personal philosophy is that if a parents says ‘I’m concerned,’ you evaluate. Even if you are not concerned,” Perry said.

Of the 200 families she sees over the course of the April-October swimming season, she said roughly 5% of the children will have a diagnosable developmental delay or impairment, roughly the same as the general population.

In her own life, however, the wild and unpredictable patterns of kids with disabilities is an everyday thing. In 2001, Perry adopted a boy with multiple developmental disabilities. The divine hand was clearly involved, pressing Perry toward “the Easter Bunny” (her sons’ real names cannot be printed) while, unbeknownst to her, a family in the foster community prayed every day that he would be adopted by someone like her.

She later adopted “Shorty,” a 3-year old with complications of prenatal inhalants. The boys are now 13 and 18 years old, and she has them enrolled in the San Antonio Independent School District.

Perry herself is a native of Alamo Heights, but in 2000 she moved closer to the center of the city. She said she feels that SAISD’s Life Strides program serves her son well, and she makes an effort to connect them to their personal heritage as well as their adoptive one.

“I’m raising two Hispanic kids in a primarily Hispanic city in a Hispanic culture,” she said.

When her boys were little, they would ask if they are “brown.” She confirmed that they were, and they would begin laughing hysterically. “Mommy, you’re pink!”

For us, having the Easter Bunny around while we are swimming is a huge draw. Moira adores him. One of my major goals for her is that she will enjoy the company of children who are different from her in many ways.

Time spent at Good Swim is likely to be a major milestone for many families. Some even form a bond with Perry that becomes a lifeline for parents. Her devotion goes beyond the lessons. She practices what she preaches in listening to the needs and enjoying the peculiarities of every child.

*Featured/top image: Urban Baby Moira McNeel (right) and a friend at Good Swim. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

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Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.