Just Keep Swimming

Aqua-Tots Swim Schools provides fun for kids and peace of mind for parents

Story by Lisa Hornung

Photos by Kathryn Harrington

Ryleigh Gillum will turn two in July, and she loves her swim classes. “As soon as we leave, she’s like, ‘Mama, (can we) go swimming?’”

Ryleigh, like other American kids, is learning to swim for fun, but also to save her life. According to the Centers for Disease Control, every day 10 people in the United States die from accidental drowning. It’s the fifth leading cause of unintentional injury death in the U.S. For every child who dies from drowning, another five receive emergency department care for nonfatal submersion injuries. The CDC says drowning is the leading cause of unintentional death in children ages one to four.

Jake and Lindsay Thayer opened the Louisville branch of Aqua-Tots, where Ryleigh takes her lessons, two months ago. They also own franchises in Lexington and Indianapolis.

“Growing up 20 minutes from Lake Michigan, that’s how I learned to swim,” Jake Thayer said. “It was, ‘walk in and let’s figure it out.’ So, it’s super important to teach your kids to swim.”

He added that statistics show that taking swim lessons between ages one and four can reduce a child’s risk of drowning by 88 percent. “That’s significant. I would do anything that’s going to reduce my risk of injury or death for my kids.”

Christy Gillum, Ryleigh’s mom, said she decided to try Aqua-Tots because she’d heard positive reviews. After the initial lesson, Ryleigh loved it. “She was a little scared when we first went, but now she loves the songs,” Gillum said. “They do songs and are very interactive with the little kids, and she asks to go every week.”

Thayer explained that Aqua-Tots is a premium service. You can find swim lessons that cost less elsewhere; however, their business provides a more comfortable, quality experience, he said. The indoor pool is heated to 90 degrees, and the air in the pool area is about 92. Parents sit outside the pool area in 70 degree air conditioning, watching through a glass wall while sitting in comfy chairs.

“If you’re in (another public) pool in the lap pool, it has to be 70 or 72 degrees, or (lap swimmers) will pass out,” Thayer said. “But then you’ve got little kids in there shivering with blue lips. We take that away.”

“I joke that the only thing they’re missing is a cocktail,” said Christy Ott, mom of Cal, age three, and Jo Jo, age four months. She came to Aqua-Tots because she grew up with Lindsay Thayer and knew the family well. “They are outstanding people,” she said.

Ott’s son Cal has been taking lessons for about six weeks and she will get Jo Jo in a class soon. Four months is the starting age for classes at Aqua-Tots, and the parents get in the water with their children until they are two and a half years old.

Thayer said parents of young children are learning as much as the children. “We’re teaching the parents just as much as the kids about safety around the water,” he explained about the level one and two classes. The youngest children are adapting to the sounds and smells of a pool and getting used to their surroundings. As they grow and learn about water safety, they will learn to roll over, float and breathe and to safely get to the side of the pool should they ever fall into the water.

Christy Ott and her husband Lou have a pool in their backyard, so Cal takes lessons at Aqua-Tots as well as private lessons. Ott wanted to make sure her son is safe, but he’s “a pistol,” she said. “During the first class, he said, ‘My mommy lets me do cannonballs,’ ‘My mommy lets me swim,’ and the teacher finally said, ‘OK, you know what, try it.’ And he did. And he sunk. But she got him, and right away said, ‘Now see, this is why you have to listen and stay against the wall.’ She’s a great instructor.”

Gillum said having Ryleigh in swimming lessons makes her rest a little easier. Knowing her daughter knows what to do makes her feel better around water.

“It’s giving you a little peace of mind that if your child would happen to fall in water or be around water, you don’t have to worry as much,” Gillum said. “The place we’re going (on vacation) has five different pools, so we’re getting her used to being in and around a pool. She likes to take off running, and this way I’m not so frantic about her running around.”

Aqua-Tots requires a membership and then members can purchase lessons. The cost depends on the number of children and the number of times per week they want to attend, Thayer said. There are also open swim times for members to take a dip and practice their skills, and they host swim parties. 

Thayer said the instructors receive more than 50 hours of classroom and in-water training, are CPR certified and American Red Cross Shallow Water Rescue certified. The maximum class size is four children. Parents get to see a weekly Aqua Card, which tells them how well their child is progressing and what they will learn in each class. Those 12 and older can take private swim lessons.

“It’s great for the child and gives them exactly what they need to swim to the best of their ability,” Ott said. “It also gives the parents the assurance that the environment is relaxing and fun and the child looks forward to it. Anytime you can find an activity where the child’s needs are being met and they’re having fun, you can’t really put a price tag on it.” VT

Aqua-Tots Louisville Swim School

117 Blankenbaker Pkwy.