‘I Was a Whale in My Former Life’

Nathan Romero

NATE TEACHES KIDS HOW TO SWIM, how to overcome fear, how to feel protected, and how to have fun. He prods, he nudges, and with the resistant ones, he gets into their heads, whispering to them, as a trainer talks to his fighter between rounds.

This sage of the swimming pool has his “office” in the Salvador Perez Pool – literally in the water. It is here, in the tropical atmosphere of a covered heated pool, among a cacophony of noises and screams of laughter, that he conducts his ministry. With an unimpeachable authority.

Some of the authority is due to his physical size, but there’s more than that. It’s also his love of the water. As a boy, he traveled to every pool he could find (which was not easy growing up in Española).

His authority is also a result of his intense training, his rigorous New Mexico teaching certificates, and years and years of lifeguarding. And it comes from self-imposed tests of overcoming fears – such as swimming from San Francisco to Alcatraz in deadly crosscurrents with occasional sharks.

But most of all, his authority comes from his kindness and gentleness; the kids trust him, hold him, and hang on to him.

A lot of kids are scared of the water, right?

A lot of kiddos just don’t want to get in the water. They are frightened of the cold. Sometimes they’re afraid of first stepping in, when they’re that small and they’re coming into a big swimming pool. The deep end is sort of dark. They’re stepping into cold water for the first time. This a whole new world for them.

The most important thing is to get them comfortable and in the water. The second most important thing to me is to get them to trust me. I get on their level and talk to them.

One of the first things that I ask them is, What’s your favorite sea creature?

And What do you like about the water?

They might have splashed around or had water gun fights. They may like watching seals in the ocean or sea turtles. Anything that I can relate water to something that they like.

And how does that help?

Well, today the favorite thing was a unicorn kitten mermaid. So from there I said, That’s funny – my favorite thing is also unicorn kitten mermaids. All of a sudden, their eyes brighten and we have something in common. From there, we go into the water and start discussing what unicorn kitten mermaids like to do in the water.

They get comfortable with me because I make them feel comfortable. We begin playing games. With the unicorn kitten mermaid or octopus or sharks, maybe I make little noises like those animals. I can transform whatever their favorite subject is into something that’s educational and all of the sudden they’re swimming!

Like, unicorn kitten mermaids really like to make bubbles, like a starfish in the water. Before you know it, they think they’re a starfish, but they’re floating on their stomach or their back,” and have no idea that they just did that.

They overcome the fear.

I’ve worked in Los Alamos for many years, coaching the swim team and saw that a lot of times what happened with smaller kids is that the parents were so focused on them being on the swim team and being a great swimmer, that they took the fun out of swimming. So my objective is to get them to have fun first. And then, if they want to, they can transition into another level of swimming.

So first, you overcome fear. Second, you make them realize it’s fun. And then the actual teaching of skills starts?

The first and most important skill I teach is putting their face in the water – without plugging their nose. They’re learning how to breathe and they still think it’s a game. We’re playing bubbles out of our nose and we’re humming songs.

So they overcome the primal fear of drowning…

When you go underwater, everything goes silent and you’re looking at a place you’ve never seen before. So I hold them close to me, I have their eyes open with their goggles, and I tell them, Just look at me.

I’m holding them firmly in the water. From there I tell them, Act like you’re taking a nap. Let’s take a nap. I’m gonna hold you, and look at me. Before you know it, I’ve let go, and they’ve been floating for five seconds without me, not realizing that they’re swimming.

Once they’ve overcome that, the swimming happens really fast. They progress to floating on their back and they start learning strokes without realizing that they’re learning strokes. In 20 years of doing this, I’ve never had one person not learn how to swim.

How did swimming become your passion?

The thing that means a lot to me about swimming is that when I grew up, I wasn’t exactly an athlete. I couldn’t play basketball or any other sports, but I could swim better than anybody I knew. I mean, I swam from Alcatraz Island to the San Francisco Bay twice!

What’s that like?

Pretty insane. I had no idea that the waves were so big in the ocean. The water is 56 degrees and shark-infested. I was with 400 other swimmers and I thought, Just don’t be the slowest person there.

You jump in, you completely lose your breath. You can’t breathe for about five minutes because you’re so cold. And, halfway there, I threw up. I was seasick! I didn’t realize how big the waves actually were.

But then I looked around and saw the Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate, and the shore with elk on it. It was the most beautiful thing in the world, and the water was so green. I just kept swimming. I got 130th place.

What’s the life of a swim teacher like?

I teach at Salvador Perez and Genoveva Chavez Community swimming pools.

You have to teach so many classes every year to remain a water safety instructor. You have to do in-service training and such.

Working at these public swimming pools has been a blessing because the people of Santa Fe have been so pleasant to work with. And I don’t go a day to work that feels like work. I can’t wait to get to the pool to be able to work with these little kids because they’re like little rays of sunshine. It’s amazing, just amazing.

I’m actually hoping this summer to do some community outreach and set up classes for kids who couldn’t otherwise afford it. Because it can change their lives.

When I was 16, I did my first mile swim in Conchas Lake, and I didn’t know how to swim. I thought I did. But that really set my passion for swimming. I loved it. I love being in the water. It’s weird.

Why do you love being in the water?

I don’t know. I really don’t know. I was probably a whale in my former life.


Photo SFM