By Gretchen Wehmhoff

My sister and I learned to swim at The Spa, a privately owned pool once located across the street from what is now Valley of the Moon Park in Anchorage. Our older brother learned to swim before we came to Anchorage in 1965. 

The lessons weren’t pleasant. Being a severe asthmatic, I resisted the pressure to place my head under water. But we got the basics: how to float, how to kick and how to tread water. Those skills gave my parents enough confidence to let us swim at Spenard Lake. I still didn’t put my head in the water, but when it came to bobbing up and down on the wakes of the float planes, treading water made it more fun.

In the 70s, the Anchorage School District (ASD) started adding pools to high schools and competitive swimming became another extracurricular sport.  

I started using the pools during community hours. I was able to practice my strokes and started rhythmic breathing with the crawl in the pool, training my lungs to hold air and inhale quickly. Not only did my stroke improve, but my lungs started working harder, as well. I began taking a series of life saving courses at the pools, eventually becoming a water safety instructor (WSI).  

In Alaska, WSI training requires constant practice in pools. Every practice started with 100 yards of each primary stroke. We practiced using safety equipment and rescuing each other. Once we had to surface dive to reach a tall, 195 lb man on the bottom of the diving area. In general, most women float — especially me. I struggled with my buoyancy, kicked, used my arms and willed my way to the 14-foot depth, grabbed the man from behind, took one push off the pool floor and we torpedoed to the top. 

As a volunteer with the Alaska Lung Association I taught asthmatic children to swim at a local pool. We focused on floating, kicking and blowing bubbles. No one was forced to put their head in the water.  

Eventually I was the waterfront director at a Southcentral youth camp. Enjoying the floating dock, canoes or rowboats required a swim test. A fellow lifeguard watched from the beach with the rescue boat as I stood on the floating dock. Campers took turns swimming to me, then returning to the shore. 

One day the lifeguard blew her whistle and pointed. A teen boy was struggling. He was too far to reach, too confused to catch the throw, so I had to go. I took a shallow dive and got to him in a few crazy strokes. Training kicked in. Approaching him from behind, I put my arm across his chest with my natural bouy of a body partially underneath him, and started to side-stroke back all the time ordering him to, “Kick, Ronnie, kick.” Of course he was scared and wanted out of the water, so he practically propelled us to the shallows.

He was safe because I had spent hours practicing water safety in a pool.

ASD added a graduation requirement in response to high statewide drowning rates and the fact that each major high school had a pool. Students needed to get themselves down the length of the pool without touching the bottom. Any stroke was fine — dog paddle, side stroke, backstroke — to pass the test and graduate. Swimming was available as a PE class.

A decade later there was pressure from parents to eliminate the swimming requirement. Arguments ranged from lack of academic value to the embarrassment of wearing swim suits in front of peers.

A school board member tried to make sense of it. “I just feel that this requirement was put in place for a purpose and I don’t think the need is gone,” she said.

The school board heeded the testimony, which I considered a small fraction of ASD parents, and dropped the graduation requirement. 

Pools can be embraced by their communities.

In Fairbanks, the Mary Siah Recreation Center, named after Fairbanks activist, Mary Siah, who fought to keep the aging recreation center and pool open, especially for the disabled, pre-school swimmers and seniors, is a great example of a well-used community pool.  

The Siah Center schedule is filled with classes for seniors and people who have difficulty with mobility. 

Water takes the weight off of knees, hips and shoulders. Water activity can be the catalyst for getting a tired body moving.

At the Chugiak High School (CHS) pool, more of a community pool due to its location, the swim classes are always utilized and often wait-listed. The pool keeps a full schedule of activities including daily lap swim, water exercise, lessons and open swim. 

Young adults and teenagers are hired as lifeguards and teach countless local children to swim, including mine. Volunteers teach water aerobic classes and families swim together in the pool helping their youngsters become comfortable with the water and learn to float. 

And of course, like other ASD high schools, there is a swim team.

According to the CDC, Alaska leads the nation in per capita drowning deaths with 4.97 per 100,000 people. Our cold waters and resistance to life preservers don’t help. Although, several Alaska lakes and ponds now have racks of life preservers provided by the Kids Don’t Float program.

In Alaska, pools aren’t the glamorous backyard variety for splashing and tanning, they are life-saving and life-changing facilities. In addition to aiding seniors and disabled users with mobility and therapy, pools teach our youth to survive when the flimsy raft they are on overturns, to float, to propel themselves. Pools can teach cold water safety skills and how to handle an upside down canoe or kayak. 

A pool can help someone walk again. A pool can save a life.

Skagway is near beautiful mountain lakes, fast moving rivers and a temperamental body of water that can change from calm to white caps within a few hours. There is no community pool.

At the end of the latest candidate forum, Assemblymember Jay Burnham ended his infrastructure priority list with “and a pool.” I hear he started asking for a pool when his kids were young. Now they are in high school.

The audience chuckled at Burnham’s comment. I didn’t. He is right to keep asking. Skagway should answer.