Jan Thomas gave her first swim lessons as a 14-year-old in South Dakota. She never really stopped.
Until now. At 80, Thomas has decided it’s finally time to quit after teaching generations of children in the central San Joaquin Valley - thousands of them, really – how to hold their breath, kick through the water and come up safe.
“I want to do this forever,” Thomas said Monday. “Well, forever isn’t forever. We had a good feeling this is the year. You know, it’s time.”
The school is the largest seasonal swim school in the country and probably the world. This season 1,400 students signed up. The pupils – including second, third and even fourth generations of swim students - come from dozens of communities in and out of state.
I lived the American dream all the way.
Jan Thomas, founder of Jan Thomas Swim School
But lessons will end as of Aug. 3, the school announced on its Facebook page Monday morning.
“We’re going to miss these parents. We’re going to miss these children and generations. It just won’t be the same,” Thomas said.
Jan Thomas’ swim school had humble beginnings 59 years ago.
In 1958, after moving out west, she printed business cards stating “Have swimsuit, will travel.” She taught lessons at swimming pools in a couple of mobile home parks and a pool in the Fig Garden area.
After saving $3,000, she built a pool in the backyard of her home in Clovis.
Then in 1972, she and husband Blayne Thomas, an insurance broker and former Clovis City Council member, bought a country property at 1849 N. Willow Ave. in Clovis, built a pool and moved the business there. Later on, she built a second pool to give lessons to older students.
Jan Thomas said she always hired college students as swim instructors. But swimming skills were not a major factor in deciding who to hire.
“We hire for their character,” Thomas said. “We value the high standards. Walt Disney said decisions are easy when your values are clear.”
About 500 instructors have been hired over the years and several have gone on to start their own swim schools around the country, she said.
For about the last 20 years, her daughter, Becky Thomas, has been in charge of swim instruction. But Jan Thomas personally handles all the lesson schedules using an old-fashioned scheduling book. “I’m faster than a computer,” she said.
The school specializes in teaching toddlers to stay afloat. The average age of the school’s students is 3 years old, but the school teaches swimming to all ages, including adults. All instruction is one on one.
“We have a system that works,” Thomas said.
Parent La Weakley brought her two boys, Rajeen, 6, and Ranveer, 5, to their swimming lessons Monday. The family was there last year, too, she said.
The teachers care about the swimmers, she said.
“They make every lesson very personal,” she said. “They are the most loving. They stay connected with each student. ... What is so important to us, if they should slip and fall, they’re not scared of it. They’ll be calm and know what to do.”
It’s too bad it won’t be open next year, she said: “We’re a little sad.”
A tradition at the swim school is that at the end of the series of lessons, every child stands on an Olympics platform and gets a gold medal that is announced to all.
“It’s a big deal,” Thomas said.
They make every lesson very personal.
La Weakley, parent
In addition, a photographer takes underwater photos and video of the children that parents can buy.
One year, Thomas entered in the county fair a photo showing two girls swimming under water. She said her late husband expressed doubts it would get much attention.
“It won ‘Best of Show’,” she said.
She and her husband, who died five years ago at 80, had three children who grew up in the business and succeeded as adults, she said. Her son Brad is an attorney in the Bay Area, and son Brian is a chiropractor in Draper, Utah.
“I lived the American dream all the way,” she said.
She is the past president of the United States Swim School Association, and is a charter member of the World Congress of Aquatic Babies Education.
This fall, her dedication to her business will be recognized by the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame, which is giving her its 2017 Zinkin Award.
Although she’s closing her swim school, both Thomas and her daughter still have plans. They intend to seek out motivational speaking gigs and want to help other small businesses excel in the customer service that Thomas credits with the success of her swim school.
Also, the business will fund scholarships for Clovis high school students.
“My husband would always say, ‘we want to be a force for good in the community,’ ” Thomas said.