POULSBO — Multiple Sclerosis has robbed Debra Thomas of the use of her legs, but it hasn’t touched her resumé, her determination, or one of her life’s loves: helping others to swim.
Despite being required to use a wheelchair since before the North Kitsap Community pool re-opened, Thomas has remained active, coordinating the pool’s preschool playtime program.
The program helps young children become comfortable in the water. Most children develop a fear of the water between 18 months and two and a half years of age, Thomas said, but can be taught to overcome those fears.
In preschool playtime, the kids work with a relative — such as a mom or dad, aunt or uncle, or grandmother or grandfather — on games and activities that help them be more comfortable in the water.
Kids learn the “monkey walk,” a hand-over-hand technique used to pull themselves along the pool edge to the stairs; they play with the pool toys provided in the program; they learn to kick, move their arms quickly and submerge.
Thomas doesn’t work very directly with the kids. She emphasizes that the program is an adult-child program, where relatives work with their children; all she does is help coordinate the adults’ effort.
“The parent is the teacher,” she said.
Thomas knows teaching.
Before MS began affecting her legs, she spent 16 years giving swimming lessons. Her love of the water was so apparent that four of her five children became lifeguards (the fifth, at age 12, has expressed interest). When pool director Greg Schmidt saw her expertly swimming laps four years ago, he approached her to give lessons at the pool.
She has since stopped giving lessons; because of the MS, she must use the pool’s lift to lower herself into the water.
Thomas said she tried to stop working at the pool, concerned that swimmers would have a problem with her — Schmidt wouldn’t have any of it.
She would like to resume giving private swimming lessons. Most people see a woman in a wheelchair, she said; not a woman with 16 years of experience in two states.
“I’m fighting people’s attitudes,” she said.
For now, Thomas wants to see enrollment rise in the preschool playtime class.
She said the classes can help transition youngsters from becoming comfortable in the water to swimming lessons.
“As soon as they’re ready, they’re in swimming lessons and doing great,” she said. “There’s a lot of water in Kitsap County and kids need to know how to swim. It’s vital.”