By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
ADA — To many, Sandy Neely is known simply as the “Swimming Lady.”
She has been the head volunteer for the American Red Cross’ swimming program for 50 years — 44 of those years in Ada. During that time, hundreds, if not thousands of youth and adults have learned to swim, thanks to Neely and her dedicated team of volunteers.
“She’s taught three generations,” said Bryan Marshall, a volunteer who serves with Neely in the Ada Kiwanis Club.
“That’s where the ‘Swimming Lady’ comes from,” he explained. “The kids would see her downtown and they’d say, ‘There’s the Swimming Lady.'”
This summer’s program began last Monday. Lessons are held five days a week for two weeks, weather permitting. There are some 70 participants this year, ages 5 and older, from Ada, Kenton, Delphos and Bluffton.
“We try to take as many as we can,” said Marshall. “It’s a good program.”
With such a busy workload, Neely credited the many volunteers who help her.
“Without all the people I have, this program wouldn’t work,” she said.
She grew up in Medina near Cleveland. She was 7 years old when she learned to swim at Camp Craig near Hinckley.
“I lived kind of across the street from our public pool. So once I got all my work done at home, I was allowed to go over and I swam every day all the time,” she said.
In high school, Neely joined the synchronized swimming team. She continued swimming in college.
“I had my life-saving certificate, so I worked at Ohio State at the pool and as a lifeguard. And because I was a PE (physical education) major, they pulled me out of the lifeguard chair and said ‘Get down here and help teach,'” she said.
Neely earned a Water Safety Instructor certificate in 1967. The following year, she was put in charge of life-saving classes at her home pool in Medina.
“I had my old high school PE teacher in it. And I went to this lady that was in charge of the Red Cross. And I said, ‘She’s awful. I had her in high school, but she couldn’t swim’. She knew it all, but she couldn’t do it. I said, ‘I cannot fail her. You’re going to have to tell her,'” she laughed.
Neely taught all levels of water safety and used this experience as the basis for the program in Ada, where she and husband Bruce moved in 1974 and she volunteered to teach swimming lessons as a way of keeping her WSI certificate current.
“At the time there was a Red Cross office in Ada,” she said. “I told the director, ‘I’d like to see this program grow.'”
There are six levels in the American Red Cross Learn-to-Swim program, ranging from the basics where students learn to feel comfortable in the water to advanced levels where they gain the ability to swim greater distances.
Neely also spends part of each 30-minute lesson talking about health and safety issues.
“Lots of things we do in Red Cross swimming aren’t in the water,” she said. “We have to talk to you about some safety things that make you safer around the water. That’s part of our goal.” This particular day, she focused on the importance of using sunscreen, seeking shade and staying hydrated.
“Even if you’re here swimming, you should ask whoever brings you if you can bring a container of water,” she told a group of Level 1 swimmers. “Being in the water doesn’t keep you like you’re drinking water. It doesn’t come in through your skin. It has to come in through your mouth.”
Volunteers then work with one or two students on skills like blowing bubbles, floating and treading water. Students must master each of these skills before they can move to the next level.
Volunteers also keep track of the tasks accomplished each day and complete paperwork for each student.
The cost is just $3 per student. The rest is underwritten by the Ada Kiwanis Club, while the village of Ada provides use of the pool.
“The whole point to me is to make it accessible to those people that maybe can’t afford $50 for swimming lessons,” Neely said.
This will be Neely’s final year in charge of the program. After 50 years, she has decided to step back as the lead volunteer.
“I can’t believe I’m at 50 years and that I’m ready to say enough is enough,” she said. “I wouldn’t mind coming back if all I had to do was walk out here and teach.”
But her job includes all the preparations that go along with the program.
“I start with this way back in November, writing a letter asking for permission to use the pool, getting on the schedule. About March I’ve got to get us registered with the Red Cross,” she said. “I probably put 25-30 hours in just getting all the paperwork ready for everybody.”
It’s been worth all the time and effort, though.
“I’ve heard stories that keep you going, of how that class that they took saved this life,” she said. “That’s why we do it.”
A ceremony was held in June and a plaque in Neely’s honor was dedicated on the poolhouse wall. It reads in part, “Her meritorious efforts helping youngsters, here at the Ada Pool, overcome their fear of water has likely saved lives. The residents of Ada are thankful for her caring attitude and appreciative of the impact she has made upon the community.”