- The Washington Times - Friday, July 13, 2001

Bright smiles and eager young faces greet Bill Otten every Wednesday morning when he arrives to teach the YMCA's "Polliwogs" swim class.
Mr. Otten, 37, started teaching swim lessons at the YMCA at age 16. A competitive swimmer in high school and college, he still loves swimming. He enjoys sharing his love of the sport with children. He currently teaches swim lessons at the Upper Montgomery County YMCA.
"I feel like I'm helping people," Mr. Otten says. "The kids are wonderful."
Mr. Otten starts teaching his 45-minute Polliwogs class promptly at 9:30 a.m. Polliwogs is the YMCA's beginner swim class for school-age children. On this day, Mr. Otten's seven students range in age from 6 to 11 years old.
The children, who are all wearing yellow flotation belts, gather in a seated circle by the pool as Mr. Otten asks them questions.
"Where does the lifeguard sit?" he asks them. The children, in their brightly colored swimsuits, point to the far end of the pool at the lifeguard chair. Mr. Otten tells them to point out the deep and shallow ends of the pool.
"Which side can we dive in?" he asks. The children reply that they can only dive in at the deep end because they might get hurt by diving in at the shallow end of the pool.
After this short review of pool-safety awareness, Mr. Otten tells the children they can get in the water on the shallow end of the pool. They scamper to its edge and climb down the ladder one by one. As the children get in, Mr. Otten gathers up several floating barbells and places them at the pool's edge.
Mr. Otten tells the children to put their arms against the wall, kick, put their faces in the water and blow bubbles on the count of three. On three, they enthusiastically put their heads in the water.
Mr. Otten then hands all of the children barbells and divides them into three groups. He tells the children in group number one to push their floating weights ahead of them and kick a quarter of the way across the pool and then come back. As the children kick, Mr. Otten sometimes lends a helping hand, guiding their bodies in the right directions.
The other two groups follow, and then the groups do the same thing on their backs with barbells across their chests.
"Look straight up," Mr. Otten says. His apprentices stare intently at the ceiling. A couple of Mr. Otten's students kick too far and start backing into the water aerobics class that is going on at the other end of the pool. Mr. Otten laughs and swims to the rescue.
After all of the groups have completed this exercise, Mr. Otten congratulates them and tells them not to forget their numbers. They will need to remember their groups.
To help his students move their arms correctly through the water, Mr. Otten tells them to count as they swim.
"One, two, one, two," he repeats, stretching his arms forward every time he says a number. Practice, he commands, and the children start stretching their arms forward to the rhythm, copying his demonstration. With arms moving forward in unison, at least for a moment, group one swims away. After all the groups have taken a turn practicing their strokes, the children go through the same routine using backstrokes.
Mr. Otten congratulates the children, and they say they have been practicing.
"Where have you been practicing? In your bathtub?" he asks with a broad smile. The children giggle.
A new lesson in water safety is next on the agenda. The children get out of the water and stand at the pool's edge, watching their instructor, who remains in the water.
"What do you do if you see someone who is having trouble in the pool?" asks Mr. Otten. "You do a reach assist."
The children line up by the side of the pool as Mr. Otten pretends to struggle in the water. He asks how the children will help him. A boy comes to the side of the pool and reaches his hand out to Mr. Otten, who proceeds to pull him into the pool.
"Now we're both in trouble," Mr. Otten says.
He explains that in such a situation, children should first look for an adult who can help with the situation. If no one is around, they should come to the water's edge, hold something out to the person who is in trouble and then sit down quickly so they do not get pulled in.
People who are distressed in the water may become panicky and pull others in with them, he cautions.
One by one, the children practice holding a barbell out to Mr. Otten, quickly sitting down then towing him to the edge of the pool. Each gets a high five after pulling him in.
Barbells are not the only instruments people can use to help others out of the water, Mr. Otten says.
He says the children can also extend a towel or a kickboard or many of the other things they see.
After this short lesson, the children re-enter the pool and put their goggles on. They take turns swimming again. This time, they go one by one under Mr. Otten's watchful eye until he suggests that they head to the deep end for the "fireman pole."
At this moment, a frantic parent runs over.
"You didn't do Cristina," she cries.
Mr. Otten apologizes and says he thought he had missed somebody. He then takes Cristina Ortiz, an 11-year-old from Gaithersburg, for her swim.
"Some parents are overprotective," Mr. Otten says later. "I don't mind them being here as long as they are not coaching."
He says that unknowingly, parents often make teaching more difficult for their children's instructors.
Often children are much more willing to try new things when their parents are not there, he says. But he does appreciate their interest.
The parents watch intently as Mr. Otten takes the children over to the deep side of the pool. He brings out a long pole that reaches to the bottom of the pool and gets in the water with it. Putting one hand in front of the other "like firemen," the children take turns climbing down and up the pole as far as they can go underwater. Afterward, high fives go all around and the children head back to the pool's shallow area, where they help put away barbells.
Mr. Otten is satisfied with the morning's lesson and feels ready for his commute to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he is earning an master's degree in finance. Mr. Otten lives with his wife in Montgomery Village.
Mr. Otten plans to continue swimming. Swimming is very important and people can learn to swim at all ages, he says.
A short while ago he talked to a father of two of the children in his class. The father could not swim, but because his knowing how to swim would encourage his children to learn, he has decided to take lessons, Mr. Otten says. He is very happy that more and more people are learning to swim.
"Swimming is so much fun," he says. "The best part of this job is helping people learn to swim."

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