Learn to swim in South County? You probably know Bill Meier

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GREAT BARRINGTON — In two successive summers during his youth, Robert Meier nearly drowned in Sandisfield's York Lake.

"He'd describe it to us, and he'd say, 'I could see the sun gettin' smaller as I sank down,'" Bill Meier says of his late father, who was rescued by the same person both times.

But Meier's near-death experiences have ensured that the lives of countless others entering the water won't be in danger. That's because Bill has become one of the most ardent advocates for swim training in the Berkshires — and across the country — after beginning lessons at age 4.

"A lot of parents who are fearful of water will get their kids into lessons so that their kids don't have that fear," said Meier, who is the director of Outreach Programs at Bard College at Simon's Rock's Kilpatrick Athletic Center.

What about those parents' or other adults' trepidation, though? According to a 2014 Red Cross survey, 80 percent of the 1,024 U.S. adult respondents indicated that they could swim. Yet, only 56 percent of the participants said that they could demonstrate the organization's five basic water safety skills: jumping in water and returning to the surface; treading water for at least a minute; completing a 360-degree turn; swimming 25 yards without stopping; and exiting the pool without a ladder).

During a free week of children's swim lessons in 2011 offered at the college, Meier heard from parents who wanted to develop their strokes.

"I had a bunch of moms and dads that were like" — Meier said before lowering his voice to a whisper in his aquatics center office — "'Oh, this is great that you're doing this for the kids, but could you do ... any adult lessons?'"

The answer was "yes"; the free program is now in its seventh year. Along the way, the lessons have spread throughout New England to 30 states across the country under the U.S. Masters Swimming-sponsored idea that April is "Adult Learn-to-Swim Month." (In the Berkshires, classes this year will be held at Simon's Rock on Tuesday and Thursday nights from April 3 through April 19 and at the Berkshire Family YMCA Pittsfield branch on Thursdays from April 5 through April 26.) Meier is the man behind that expansion.

COASTAL ROOTS

Meier took his first swim lessons on Long Island, where he grew up.

"My earliest memory of the water was — I was, I think, 6 — I learned how to jump off the high dive," Meier said on Monday. "The lifeguard finally came over to my mom, took me over to my mom, and he said, 'No more. Thirty-two times is enough for a 6-year-old kid."

His enthusiasm for the wet stuff never waned. In high school, he participated in a recreational league. And at the State University of New York at Albany, he captained the swim squad during his final two years. Though competing in pools was certainly a passion, Meier loved the beach. He was a lifeguard near Jones Beach State Park for about 10 years, and he surfed regularly. During his childhood, he would visit Sandisfield, where his great-grandfather had purchased a home decades earlier.

RURAL CALLING

Meier married his wife, Maureen, in 1987, three years after he had graduated from SUNY Albany. Shortly thereafter, the couple bicycled 4,700 miles across the country, pedaling from upstate New York to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Las Cruces, N.M.

"It was a life-shaping trip. It changed everything. And that's really why we came back up here to the Berkshires because one of the things we realized was we did not want to live in an urban environment anymore," he said.

One of the last places the Meiers stayed during their journey was an organic farm and community in Texas.

"We're just sitting there, and we're like, 'Let's go to Sandisfield and just create a self-sustainable farm,'" Meier said.

After the couple moved to the Berkshires in 1989, their new career didn't work out.

"[It] quickly became obvious that we're not going to make any money farming," Meier said. "We had no idea what to do with that."

DIVING IN

With farming off the table, the Meiers started a vending business.

"We literally lived hand-to-mouth, man," Meier said, "but I was able to be with my kids [Matt and Lizzie] as much as my wife was."

In the early '90s, West Stockbridge architect John F l p invited Meier to help out with a swim club he coached at Eden Hill in Stockbridge. The pool there was one of few in the area.

"[It was] really just a hole in the ground," Meier said.

After getting back in the water, he remembered how much he loved it.

"I just went home to my wife, and I said, 'I don't know how we're going to do this, but we've got to start a swim team,'" Meier said.

He called F l p and urged him to expand his program. They rented the pool space and founded the South County Falcons in 1995, beginning with 15 team members. After three years, that number increased to 55, all occupying a three-lane pool.

In 1996, Meier started the SwimAmerica of Western Massachusetts lesson program. About 160 children enrolled during the first year, Meier said. When Eden Hill could no longer host the lessons, Meier and a van full of instructors would shuttle to various pools around the Berkshires.

By the fall of 1997, however, funds had gotten tight. Maureen, an office manager and bookkeeper, said Bill needed to get a different job.

That night, Bard College at Simon's Rock's dean, Bernard F. Rodgers Jr., called Meier. Rodgers told Meier that the school would be building a 58,000-square-foot fitness center, and he wanted Meier to run it, bringing his SwimAmerica lessons to the college.

In September 1998, Meier began working part-time at Simon's Rock. He trained students, teaching them how to become lifeguards and swim instructors. When the athletic center opened a year later, the school didn't waste any time offering swim programs for students, alumni and community members.

"When we opened the doors up, we literally started lessons that week," Meier said.

THE PROGRAM

SwimAmerica classes are still offered at Simon's Rock. In any given session, 250 participants ranging from infants to high school students may be enrolled, Meier said. After nearly two decades, it's safe to say that a South County swimmer is likely to have gone through one of Meier's classes. There weren't many other options at the beginning.

"It all initially started right here," Meier said.

During the spring and fall, he directs instructor training programs. Some of those trainees may be PaceMakers, the U.S. Masters Swimming team Meier coaches. The squad is made up of community members who are highly skilled swimmers.

"These guys are unbelievable. They're the best," Meier said of the team, which practices at Bard. (Meier also coaches the Simon's Rock Llamas swim team.)

The PaceMakers helped out with the free adult swim lesson week in 2012. Meier wrote an 11-page instruction manual to prepare them. Meier said they took to the experience.

"Think of the joy that you can have if you love something and then can transfer that love to somebody, who is either fearful of it or doesn't want to do it, or never learned," Meier said.

The program's success spurred Meier to propose a broader implementation of the adult training. With U.S. Masters Swimming funding, he traveled to cities around New England, giving teams the instruction the PaceMakers received. His trainings' attendance soon inspired U.S. Masters Swimming to adopt Meier's practices nationwide. The organization had him write the manual for the Adult Learn to Swim certification program and give presentations in more than 35 cities around the country, training more than 1,000 instructors. The sessions typically started with emotional introductions. He gave an example.

"'I'm swimming for my best friend because my best friend was pulled out by the current, and I just missed catching him, and he died,'" Meier recalled a man explaining. Meier, a kinetic man with a quick smile, paused, contemplating. "What do you say to something like that?"

Meier still gets in the water himself to instruct.

"I used to love to work with kids and really didn't have patience for adults. Now, as I get older, that's completely flip-flopped," he said.

He seeks a more intellectual instructing experience.

"At this point in my life, I appreciate being able to communicate with students who want to ... I want to be able to explain to a student why I want them to do something," he said.

Fostering trust is vital to ensuring that students listen.

"You have to be ultimately empathetic," Meier said.

What does that mean?

"If you're teaching really anybody that doesn't know how to swim, the water, although it's two-thirds of the Earth, it's an alien environment for most people. It's an environment that potentially can be life-threatening. As an instructor, you don't necessarily need [to] have that right in the back of your head, but you need to have the sense that this person needs to know that I'm there for them at all times, that their safety is the most important thing when I'm dealing with them. The best instructors are those that can focus 100 percent on the child that they're dealing with at that time. And the same thing holds true for adults," he said.

Older students may actually be more difficult to teach.

"It's not cool to say, 'I'm afraid,' so it's a little bit harder as an adult instructor because you have to watch people's body language. You have to listen to their verbal cues. You have to really watch how they're reacting to what you're presenting and make a decision [about] whether you're going to move ahead or move behind or stay where you are," he said.

The upcoming adult swim classes will focus on the Red Cross' five basic water safety skills. Participants will get paired with an instructor.

"For a free lesson, that's kind of a gift," Meier said.

He is satisfied with his career choice.

"I'm 57 years old. I'm thinking I could've [done] a lot of different things and made more money or something," he said. "But in the end, it's like, I get to work at Simon's Rock with some of the most interesting students that really exist, I feel. Every year, it's like a new crop of really inquisitive and interesting students, and great kids to work with. And then I get to bring these kids together with a bunch of really wonderful adults. It's like, what else? I paid for my house. It's all right."

IF YOU GO...

What: "Adult Learn-to-Swim Month" free lessons

When: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 7:15-8:30 p.m. (two classes during that time), April 3 through April 19

Where: Kilpatrick Athletic Center, 84 Alford Road, Great Barrington

Cost: Free; register at the front desk

Information: 413-528-7777 or billm@simons-rock.edu

What: "Adult Learn-to-Swim Month" free lessons

When: Thursdays, 5:30-6:15 p.m. and 6:15-7 p.m., April 5 through April 26

Where: Berkshire Family YMCA, 292 North St., Pittsfield

Cost: Free; register at the welcome center

Information: 413-499-7560 ext. 146 or akirchner@bfymca.org

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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