When Cortney Robirts felt it was time for her 17-month-old son, Porter Anderson, to learn how to swim, she did what thousands of Central Oregonians have done — she called Mary McCool.

“My husband and I spend summers kayaking and paddleboarding. We want Porter to be safe in the water,” Robirts said.

After three months of weekly lessons, Porter has transformed.

“At his first lesson, he cried the whole time,” Robirts said with a grin. “Now when he gets in the bathtub, he dunks his face under water and he gets on his back to float and starts kicking. He’s much more confident.”

On a recent afternoon, McCool, along with her daughters Molly and Jamie McCool, taught swimming from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., which they do most days of the week. The kick and the back float are the first things the McCools teach their students, who are mostly children but include the occasional adult and number around 70 each week. The techniques are lifesavers that allow a swimmer to remain afloat by relying on their inherent buoyancy.

In Oregon, 787 people drowned between 2006 and 2016, according to the Oregon Health Authority; the agency does not have numbers so far for 2017. Learning proper swimming techniques can not only save people’s lives but enrich them as well, McCool said.

“I want to give people the gift of swimming,” McCool, 60, said while walking among her chicken coops outside the indoor pool that is attached to her east Bend home. (McCool is also Western Communications Inc. chairwoman Betsy McCool’s sister-in-law.) Mary has operated the Mary McCool Swimming School for more than 40 years. She began teaching people how to swim when she was a teenage lifeguard and swim instructor at Juniper Swim & Fitness Center. She moved her emerging program to the since-shuttered Westward Ho Motel on Third Street, where she worked out a deal with management — she’d clean the pool every week for permission to hold lessons. After earning a degree in education with a minor in physical education, McCool moved her swimming school to the above-ground pool situated near the northeast home she and her husband moved to in 1980. While raising five children, McCool also ran her preschool called Juniper Schoolhouse. She has taught her swimming school at its current location since 2007.

The pool features a 18-inch deep shallow end and a 7-foot deep end. While the swimming school does have a website, McCool doesn’t advertise or promote her teaching. Instead she relies on word-of-mouth recommendations and previous students’ experiences.

“I have lots of second generations,” McCool said.

When Maryjane Nyman, 74, moved to Bend in 1979, McCool taught her 3-year-old daughter to swim. Another daughter, Josette Mitchell followed suit. All told, McCool has taught 17 of Nyman’s kin, including 14 grandchildren.

“If Mary hasn’t taught your kids to swim, you’re not really from Bend,” Nyman said with a laugh. “She’s dedicated to children; she can be stern with them — she means business. My kids tell me they hear Mary’s voice coaching them when they’re a little afraid in the water. They know how to save themselves.”

‘Mean Mary’

While McCool’s reputation as a swim teacher precedes her, she’s aware some parents don’t like her no-nonsense approach to instruction. McCool recounted a recent visit to Supercuts where a hairdresser told McCool what some customers know her by.

“They call me ‘Mean Mary,’” McCool said with a laugh. “One parent pulled their kid from the lesson because the child grabbed onto the side of the pool and I said ‘Cheater, cheater, pumpkin-eater.’ No problem — there’s the door. You can go somewhere else.”

Among the younger students, who may be less than 2 years old, crying throughout initial lessons is common. McCool recommends parents not be present so the child doesn’t focus on being rescued. During lessons in the roped-off shallow end, McCool instructs children to kick while holding onto her hand, float on their backs and become comfortable taking a deep breath before dunking their heads under water. McCool shows them how to blow water out of their noses when they surface. For some parents, McCool’s insistence that the children work through their fear can seem too much.

“What some parents don’t realize is that kids can rise to the occasion,” McCool said.

McCool’s assistant Katlyne Hatch agreed. “I have parents text me after their kid’s first lesson and they say, ‘Wow, that was a great lesson! I haven’t ever seen my child with so much confidence.’”

The confidence boosting isn’t unique to children. Allen Johnson, a 46-year-old Bend X-ray technician, had been told for years his body mass was too dense for him to swim.

“Not knowing how to swim had been a thing all my life,” Johnson said. “As I got older, I got more fearful. I decided to tackle the fear, to check learning to swim off my bucket list.”

The lessons he attempted with another instructor were short-lived because “he didn’t know what to do with me,” said Johnson, who’s 5-foot-11, muscular and African-American. ‘You’re going to a be problem’ — that’s what he told me.”

Johnson said the myth that some black people can’t learn to swim because of their lean body mass is widespread. A friend referred Johnson to McCool; she had taught him to swim full-length pool laps.

“She put me to work. I’m still in the learning process, but I’m now able to swim across her (38-foot-long) pool,” Johnson said. “When I got home I told my wife, ‘I did it!’ Oh my goodness, I was so excited. People told me it wasn’t possible, but Mary made it possible for me.”

Johnson continues his lessons each week. He will stick with the schooling until he has achieved the same connectedness with the water he has with his motorcycle. He appreciates McCool’s stern instruction.

“She’s a trainer — she is gonna work you. And I like that. She sees something in me,” he said. “I trust her judgment and the process. I love being in the water and I love swimming.”

McCool said she was initially intimidated by Johnson’s stature. During a previous lesson, the mass of a panicked grade-schooler was enough to keep McCool, who is 5-foot-4 and slim, underwater for several seconds as the student climbed up McCool as if she were a tree trunk.

“I kept calm. I told myself I knew where I was. When I peeled the kid off me I got my head above water, I told the student, ‘Roll on your back! Stay on your back and float,’” she said. “I understand that fear, but I also understand that that fear kills.”

Tending the brood

Between lessons, McCool changes into dry clothes and likes to stroll through the chicken coops she keeps in her yard. She checked in with a hen that recently appeared with 16 chicks in tow. She keeps chickens for their eggs and because her father, Joe Thalhofer, a district judge, and mother, Ruth — both of whom she cared for in their latter years — were fond of them. Ruth used to sit in a porch swing near the swimming school’s entrance and greet the students. McCool keeps the chickens until they die of natural causes.

“Look at that white one over there,” she said, pointing to a hen. “She’s 20 years old. A farmer would say,‘Why, wring the old bird by the neck!’ But I’m not a real farmer.”

Importance of swimming

Krista Jacques, 34, cradled her newborn daughter while she watched McCool teach her son, 3-year-old Truett Jacques, the beginnings of the breast stroke while he gripped a kickboard.

“Look, Momma, I can blow bubbles!” he said proudly after the lesson.

“Truett was really scared during his first lesson, but McCool helped him work through it. She’s firm yet compassionate.”

“Central Oregon has so much water,” McCool said. “Swimming is life and death. I take it very seriously. We swim first for seriousness and then for fun. Swimming gives a kid a whole new world. They learn what hard work is, and they learn to not be afraid of it. Just having fun is dangerous. Water is not just your buddy.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7816, pmadsen@bendbulletin.com