The 'Swim Whisperer' Teaches Kids To Be Water-Safe

Jul 28, 2015
Originally published on July 28, 2015 5:35 pm

If you looked at the children at the edge of Conrad Cooper's pool, you'd think you were watching an ad for something. Jell-O, maybe. Or a breakfast cereal kids like. They're that cute.

They're lined up on the steps in the shallow end, 10 little ones, ranging from age 2 to 5. The boys are in board trunks, many wearing rash-guard shirts like the weekend surfers they might become years from now. The girls wear bright one-piece suits and two-pieces that show their childish potbellies.

They are a rainbow tribe: black, Asian, white, biracial. And every eye is trained on the large man in the middle of the pool.

Conrad Cooper has been teaching little kids (and some adults) to swim for 20 years now. His business, Swim to Me, operates out of his pool in the View Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. He has taught kids who scream with fright at being put in the water, and adults who never thought they'd ever be able to swim.

His families come from around the corner and across the ocean, because word of his effectiveness travels. "He does not fool around," parents will tell you, "but it works."

It's not a method that works for everyone.

"If you think this is someplace you can come and do monkey-walking by the side of the pool and sing songs ... you're in the wrong class," Cooper says. A tall brown man with sun-bronzed dreadlocks and Pacific Islander tattoos, Cooper radiates authority, in and out of the water.

Helicopter parents are politely instructed to find a landing place in one of the comfy chairs that ring the large saltwater pool — and stay there. Parents who want Cooper to teach their children have to promise to abide by his rules: They're there to support the method, not to comfort their children.

That sometimes comes as a shock to his students.

"After two or three times in the pool with me," Cooper says, "they recognize, 'OK, this guy is serious. He's not taking no for an answer. I'm going to do this.' "

A few parents have dropped out over the years. "We're very clear that it's not for everybody," Cooper acknowledges. A slim number find his method too strict and leave. Or never sign up in the first place. But their empty slots are quickly filled by others on a waiting list.

The lessons are an hour each and run over five days. The cost is a little over $200.

Cooper began teaching in the 1990s, after he and his wife, Londa, bought a home with a pool. They hired someone who taught their niece and several of her friends to swim, and Cooper, who'd been looking to move out of sales work, thought this might be something he could do. In 1995, he began teaching full-time, and Swim to Me was born.

He and Londa divide the labor: He teaches, she runs the business, scheduling classes, booking students, keeping everything running smoothly.

It's a relaxed environment. The trees around the pool are hung with chimes that tinkle softly. Light jazz is piped through hidden speakers. Cooper gently instructs and encourages. He sometimes throws in a little etiquette tutoring: "Conrad, I burped!" one little boy tells him gleefully.

"You did? Well, what do we say when we burp?" Cooper asks.

"Um, excuse me?"

"Yes, excuse me. Very good."

One by one, kids leave the pool stairs and swim over to Cooper.

"Kick, Logan, c'mon, kick those little legs."

Logan McRae, who's wearing swim diapers, puts his little hands into Cooper's big ones. He has powered himself halfway across the pool.

"Atta boy, Logie! Where are you going to swim next?"

Silently, Logan points at his seated parents, and looks to Cooper for approval.

"You're swimming to mommy and daddy?"

Logan nods.

"OK, then, don't forget to kick!"

After the first half-hour, the kids get to vary the routine, by jumping off a huge granite rock that's on the side of the pool's deeper end, which causes much hilarity and some parental spritzing.

And despite insisting that there's no bubble-blowing or game-playing, when Cooper wades to the shallow end and holds aloft a clutch of plastic toys, the kids squeal with excitement. There's a sea star ("Not a starfish!" Cooper scolds), a stingray and an Ariel from The Little Mermaid.

He tosses them all in the water. Each child chooses a target, then dives down and emerges, grinning, prize in hand.

Parents say they're amazed at the transformation. Meredith Harper points to her daughter, Dove.

"You see the results. On Monday she couldn't swim," Harper says. "Friday she can swim. It just speaks for itself."

Caroline Collins says 5-year-old Nate was one of the kids who cried for the first couple of days, but they kept at it. "And by the end of the week, he was jumping off that rock. And he had no swim experience prior to Conrad."

Cooper says his students don't need prior experience.

"Swimming is the easy part," he says. "It's the trust part that's the most difficult for them."

And he's earned it. His students leave him with hugs, high fives and kisses. And last year, some of his early students returned with their own children. "That's rewarding, I love that," Cooper says, as he goes out to greet the next class.

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Let's visit a different kind of classroom.



GREENE: Those are students in Conrad Cooper's class. They're learning to swim. Cooper's been teaching children and also some adults to be safe in the water for some two decades now. Parents call him the Swim Whisperer. He has gained an international reputation, and he's part of our series 50 Great Teachers. Here's Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR's Code Switch team.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: If you want to learn to swim from Conrad Cooper, you have to be ready to go old school. Mr. Cooper doesn't play around.

CONRAD COOPER: If you think this is someplace you can come, we're going to do monkey walk on the side of the pool and sing songs, you're in the wrong class. We don't do those things here.

BATES: Here are some more things he doesn't do.

COOPER: I don't blow bubbles. We don't play games. We don't back float, much of that kind of thing. It's pretty much let's go swim, and we get right to it right away.

BATES: Tough rules and not for everyone. But enough folks want to abide by them that there's always a waiting list for his classes. It all started accidentally. In 1994, Cooper and his wife, Londa, had just moved into a new home in the View Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. It had a large pool and the Coopers hired a man to teach their niece and several of her friends to swim. After watching him, Cooper decided he could do that.

COOPER: Now swim to me.

BATES: He started teaching a little that summer. The next year, Cooper quit his sales job at UPS and taught full-time, and Swim to Me was born. Word quickly spread about this tall, brown man with dreadlocks and Pacific Islander tattoos who could coax scaredy-cats into the water.


BATES: Classes run from around Easter through Labor Day. They usually last an hour for five consecutive days and cost a little over $200. Over the years, Cooper's clientele, like his neighborhood, has changed. In the beginning...

COOPER: Our classes were primarily neighborhood kids, friends, family and African-Americans.

BATES: But as word circulated, he briefly taught in private suburban pools and his families became very diverse. When Cooper decided to teach solely in his home pool in LA, they came to him from all over. Today, some families come from as far away as the Middle East and the East Coast.

COOPER: We have people who schedule vacations around swim classes now.

BATES: Helicopter parents are politely asked to find a landing pad and stay there, even when their kids don't want to go into the water.

COOPER: After two or three times in the pool with me, they recognize, OK, this guy is serious. He's not taking no for an answer. I'm going to do this. Mom and Dad are passing me back to him. I'm still crying and it's not working, so I may as well go with the program.

MATTHEW: Hi, Conrad.

COOPER: Hi, Matthew. How are you, Matthew?

BATES: Ten children, a little rainbow tribe ranging from 2 to 5 years old, carefully settle on the poor stairs in the shallow end.

COOPER: The girls are going to go first.

MATTHEW: OK and then...

COOPER: Then you can go. Is that OK?


COOPER: Thank you, buddy.

BATES: Cooper swims to the middle of the warm, saltwater pool. One by one, the kids paddle out to him. He whispers approval and encouragement and then points them to the pool's far edge.

COOPER: Let's swim to Mommy and Daddy. Can - need you to kick your legs.

BATES: Tiny Logan McCrea is so small he's still wearing waterproof swim diapers. But he gamely puts his face in the water and powers over to his parents, who are sitting in chairs that ring the pool.

COOPER: Kick, Logie (ph). Kick, Logie. Kick, Logie - atta-boy.

BATES: A few kids are a little hesitant to let go of the edge and swim out. Cooper gently coaxes them, and one by one, they swim toward him and place their little hands into his big ones. Some climb right into his arms for a hug and wait for further instructions.

COOPER: Keep kicking your legs. You're doing fine. Keep going. Keep going. Keep going.

BATES: Their hard work is interspersed with fun, like jumping off a large rock that serves as a diving board. And to show that they're really comfortable in the water, the kids rocket to the bottom of the pool to pick up a water-themed toy of their choice. First, you have to use the correct name, though.

COOPER: What's this?


COOPER: It's not a starfish.

KALEISHA: A sea star.

COOPER: Thank you, Kaleisha (ph).

BATES: There's also a four-inch Ariel "The Little Mermaid" and a tiny plastic scuba diver from a TV show that some of us old folks might find familiar.

COOPER: Loyd - let's go get Loyd Bridges.

BATES: Everyone does his own sea hunt, diving down and emerging triumphant, a toy in hand. To soon class is over. As 2-year-old Dove Houston towels off, her mom, Meredith, marvels at the transformation.

MEREDITH HOUSTON: The first day that she was here, she was just like every other kid, just screaming and scared. And by - I think by - like, Wednesday she was turned into a little fish.

BATES: Caroline Collins says it was the same for her 5-year-old Nate.

CAROLINE COLLINS: He cried, like, the first two days and then after that, by the end of the week, he was jumping off that rock. And he had no swim experience prior to Conrad.

BATES: Conrad Cooper says his students don't need prior swim experience.

COOPER: Swimming is the easy part. It was the trust part, I think, is the most difficult part for them.

BATES: And he's won their trust. So much so that last year, some of the children Cooper taught two decades ago returned with their own children so he can teach them. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.