We believe that every child, for their health and for their survival, should learn how to swim. For many reasons, including cost and access, lots of children do not. We are working hard to change that through outreach and scholarships, and by partnering with local organizations and schools to bring children in for lessons. As part of this effort, we are collecting “swimming stories” from people for whom learning to swim has special meaning. They are profiled here:
Oswald Roper, Flying Fish Swim Instructor and Coach
This story was originally written in October 2011. Oswald “Oz” Roper passed away in January 2013 at the age of 59, six months before his 20th year anniversary with the YWCA Flying Fish. In September 2013, on what would have been his 60th birthday, The Oswald Roper Memorial Fund was established in his name. This fund provides aquatics scholarships and facilities improvements for a program he cared about deeply. Read about the establishment of the fund here.
I was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Life was spontaneous—everyday was a different experience and you acted on that challenge. As far back as I can remember, two of my biggest passions, swimming and music, were always parts of my life.
Like most children on our island, I learned to swim at a young age because in Jamaica swimming was a prerequisite for life. Children from families who could afford it took swimming lessons, and the rest learned to swim under the watchful guidance of a parent, uncle, brother or sister over the course of many hours spent playing in the surf at the beach.
I learned to teach swimming from a Red Cross exchange group from Canada, and then ran the Jamaica Red Cross learn-to-swim program that supported all of the high school and primary schools in Kingston for five years.
After college, I worked for the Ministry of Health and then for the School of Physical Therapy, but when I was twenty-five, I decided to pursue my passion for music.
My father was a jazz buff, and as a child I played with blind musicians who made their own instruments. Their voices were so fine tuned in harmony it made your ears ring with true notes. My grandmother was a supervisor for the Institute for the Blind in Kingston, and my primary school was adjacent to the Institute so I grew up singing and playing with these guys.
In 1980, I formed a band, Chalice, with friends I worked and hung out with. It was made up of seven members, and I was the lead singer and played guitar. We ultimately played all over the world, but my favorite places to perform were in Mexico City, Istanbul, Germany and the Caribbean. The last show we played was with Vanilla Ice and Laura Brannigan in the Cayman Islands on New Year’s Eve, 1992. On January 1, 1993, I flew to Chicago. I knew there was a good music scene here and I was tired of living on the road.
I continue to play music and have played in lots of clubs around Chicago, but teaching swimming again has reconnected me with my other passion. In Jamaica, everyone learned to swim. In the U.S., there is a history of exclusion that keeps many African American children from the water. I find this so sad because we live beside a lake that could be as much fun as the beaches in Jamaica, but you don’t see many African American families at the beach. I am glad that we are working to change that, and I can see the results already in our great YWCA Flying Fish program.
I’ve been teaching at YWCA for 17 years now and I love it. I get so much satisfaction out of helping kids build morale and emerge as winners, not necessarily by winning races but by setting goals for themselves and accomplishing them.
If you want to see Oz in action with his band, check out this video from Chalice performing at Reggae Sunsplash in Kingston, Jamaica in 1982.
Kimsour Eap, Flying Fish Swim Instructor and Assistant Coach
(written January 2012) I was born in 1985 in Cambodia, and grew up in a rural area surrounded by rice paddies and orange groves. Cambodia is warm throughout the year, but we weren’t allowed to swim in the ponds because they were the source of our drinking water, so my friends and I used to spend a lot of time splashing around in the local creek. I couldn’t really swim, but I knew how to tread water. One day when I was about eleven, I saw a neighbor’s kid struggling to stay afloat and I thought I could save him. In his panic, he grabbed onto me, pushing me under water. We both survived that experience because someone hauled us out, but if no one else had been around to help, we probably would have drowned. That really scared me.
In Cambodia’s dry season, the creek could shrink to just a trickle. In the rainy season, which is also the hottest season, it often overflowed its banks. About a year after I nearly drowned, a man who was driving through town stopped to cool off in the overflowing creek. He was swept under immediately, and we all knew we couldn’t help him because we would drown as well. The next day I watched as they pulled his lifeless body from the water. I felt that if I had been a stronger swimmer I could have helped him.
When I was 14, we moved to Chicago. I went to Mather High School, where my friends and I joined the soccer team in the fall of our freshmen year. Athletes at my school started classes at 7 am and finished at 1 pm. I liked this schedule, so when soccer season ended, I decided to join the swim team, even though I had never seen a swimming competition didn’t know what the four strokes were. I also couldn’t understand what the coach was saying, and I was the only bilingual swimmer on the team.
It was frightening to do something that seemed so dangerous to me when I was younger, but that’s also why I wanted to do it. I love all sports, and I don’t like to give up. Fortunately, my swim coach was also my guidance counselor. She knew how hard it was for me and she took the time to explain things. I ended up liking the water so much that after swim season ended, I played water polo.
After sophomore year, my coach told me that I could earn some money as a lifeguard for the Chicago Parks Department. Rookie training was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it prepared me well for lifeguarding. That summer I worked at River Park pool, and I had to enter the water fifteen times to save people who were struggling. Lots of kids think they know how to swim better than they do and they get in trouble quickly in the deep end. I lifeguarded for six summers, and my last summer there, I had to rescue a 23-year old swimmer who couldn’t swim but jumped into the deep water anyway. When I reached him he was unconscious, but we got him out and resuscitated him. That brought back awful memories of the drowning incident I witnessed when I was young.
For the last five years, I have been coaching and teaching swim lessons at the YWCA while putting myself through school. I graduated from Northeastern Illinois University in May with a BA in Finance, and I’ll receive a bachelor’s in Accounting this spring. I’m hoping to sit for the CPA exam next fall.
I really appreciate the experience of the coaches at the YWCA and have learned a lot by watching them. I am also always looking for new ideas and new ways to teach things. School is hard and often frustrating for me, and working with the kids helps me relax and loosen up. They always keep me smiling, and knowing that I am teaching something that could one day save their lives makes it feel extraordinarily valuable.