June 23, 2005 – Kathy Huttel doesn't let rumors stop her from continuing her work with the St. Thomas-St. John Swimming Association. In fact, she seems even more determined to continue with the expansion of the program and sees many more years in the territory for lessons, memories, and laughter.
"There are a lot of nay-sayers out there," Huttel said, referring to comments by residents concerning the well-being of the organization, "but they're wrong."
Huttel continues, "The program has always been a challenge, and there are times when we could have given up. But we didn't, and I want to see this continue and go all the way."
For Huttel, the swimming association's founder, that means the building of a community pool on the East End of St. Thomas, a project in the making for many years.
"This effort has been frustrating for us and the community," Huttel said, "but we're almost there. We've had some problems, but we're just right there now, ready to go."
And ready to launch into a full-scale swimming program, with year-round classes for students from the age of two, all the way to adults who have never learned to swim at all.
"Being at the beach has been great," Huttel said, "but there are still issues which can't be solved." For example, access for handicapped students remains a problem, while September's jellyfish season and rough/cold water from December until February are also
negatives. Huttel thinks that the pool is going to fix all that and more.
"Eudora Kean, which is almost right next door, will be starting a marine program in the future," Huttel explained, "and we'll be there to help them with that, too."
Huttel plans to open the pool five days a week, four hours a day for public school access.
"The government had also wanted to mandate a certain level of swimming skill for students in order to graduate," Huttel added, "but that couldn't happen because we didn't have the facility. And now we do. We can provide a proper environment for something like that."
The pool is also to serve as a base for the association's swim team, the Stingrays, who will use the pool to practice for swim meets.
Even without the facility, however, Huttel has never wavered from her commitment to swimming instruction. The program — started in 1984 and currently in its 17th year at Magen's Bay Beach — offers as much time to students as possible.
"Unfortunately, there are some kids that I only see in the summers," Huttel mentioned, "and I make sure to tell the parents that they have to push their children for the skill level they want to achieve. A two-year-old may not be able to swim out to a buoy at Magen's, but a six-year-old surely can."
Huttel added that it is also important for parents to notice that each child's skill level is different, and the program takes that into consideration when suggesting further instruction. "Some kids are very scared, and some kids are very bold," she said.
Huttel's first daughter, for example, was in the water at three days old. "I grew up around the pool myself," Huttel said, speaking of her days growing up in Texas, "and I had my daughter at the beach, in the water, and she loved it."
Her daughter was the reason for the initiation of the swimming program, as Huttel was unable to find a proper swimming instructor.
"There were none on the island at the time," Huttel said, "and my daughter kept jumping off the boat [that we lived on]. I realized that I didn't know what to do about that."
Fortunately, Huttel was able to form a partnership in the early '80s with Melinda Southern, a newcomer to St. Thomas who had an extensive background in aquatic training — from synchronized swimming to lifeguarding.
However, since Southern has been pursuing her own career in the field of childhood development and obesity, Huttel has taken over the program herself.
"I've taught over 1,500 kids since we've been doing this," Huttel said, "and I think we've touched almost every part of the island."
Huttel added that in the early days of the program, the organization moved from various beaches to pools in private homes and even hotel pools like the former Ramada Inn.
"But that was problematic," she explained, "because we had like 30 kids in the pool, [and] 40 waiting on the deck."
Consequently, the large number of children forced the association to move to Lindqvist Beach, the program's home until the land was sold to developers. From that point, classes have been held at Magen's and will continue there until the opening of the pool.
"I have so many memories of these children," Huttel noted fondly, "and I hope to have many more. It's why I keep doing this. We're definitely not going anywhere."
For more information on the St. Thomas-St. John Swimming Association, call Huttel at 779-2500.
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