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IOWA — Swimming lessons are a rite of passage for many kids, whether they love or hate the water. But there are some brand new lessons taking place in Central Iowa that are unlike any you’ve seen before.

“We train the kids to be their own flotation device,” says newly trained instructor Afton Kidman.  She’s trained to work with babies as young as six months old through “Infant Swimming Resource” survival swimming lessons.  “No matter how they fall in the water,” she explains, “feet first, face first, whatever. They know how to find the air and to float.”

The lessons can be difficult to watch, especially with a baby as young as Brooks – who is eight months old and screaming his head off the entire time. When asked about it, his mom Eden chuckles, “Yeahhhh…there were a couple of weeks I wasn’t sure I’d come back but I’m really glad we did.”

The training for new instructors is intense.  ISR Master Instructor Susana Ponce de Leon has spent seven weeks with Kidman, and another instructor in training – Morgan Eller.  “For some reason, my biggest fear is having my kids drown,” Eller explains, “I took that fear and anxiety and channeled into something that can be productive instead of being scared all the time.” 

Ponce de Leon explains that the training is intense. In order to become certified, applicants have to devote a lot of time to academics and in-pool sessions. The same goes for kids and parents taking the lessons. “This is a one-to-one lesson,” Ponce de Leon emphasizes, “we can adjust the lesson to that specific child because we know what their needs are, any health issues they might have, and what their history was in the water.”

This specific style of survival swimming teaches kids fundamental skills in tiny increments.  It all builds up to being put in the water fully clothed. “Today he’s in summer clothes with a real diaper because most kids have their accidents in real clothing,” explains Kidman, “so it’s not a test of his skills, but using his skills in clothing so he knows what it feels like. They understand the reality of water and what it is and how to survive in it.”

She knows the reality. Her son Forrest almost died in the family’s pond during the summer of 2020. “All the kids were playing outside,” she remembers, “I turned around and Forrest was gone.” Her husband Jake remembers it vividly. “I killed the mower right here and took off straight to the pond,” he says. “I went down to the dock and didn’t see anything but then I walked to the edge and he was right there, floating on the surface, face down.”

Jake pulled Forrest out of the water and started CPR.  Afton called 911.  Medics arrived and took over until Life Flight landed and took the toddler to Blank Children’s Hospital. “I was in shock,” says Afton, ”we’d lived there three and half years and had four kids and never had any issues. It was so scary, not knowing if he was dead or alive.”

Forrest survived, but he will never be the same. It’s why Afton decided to learn how to teach survival swimming.  “I didn’t know the reality of drowning, and it’s one of those things that you think it won’t happen to you.”  The lessons also teach parents how dangerous floaties can be. “Your body remembers,” Afton explains, “it’s like muscle memory. Puddle jumpers put you in a vertical position which is known as the drowning position.”  She also says they create a false sense of security for kids. “He didn’t know what water truly was because he’d been in floaties his whole time in the water.”

Instead of focusing on the past, the Kidmans are trying to look to the future. “We’re always talking about – what’s the plan, why Forrest, what’s the big plan behind this,” says Jake. “A lot of good has come out of it, we still have Forrest and we’re thankful for that.”  Afton says, “We remind ourselves, God had a plan from the start. We wanted to find something good to do our of this so we aren’t just victims, but we’re using it to help others.”

Lessons with Afton begin October 20th at the Wellmark YMCA:

Morgan is teaching in Ames:

To find an ISR instructor near you: