Mobile swim program comes to you

No one would be surprised if Christina Theiss sprouted gills, she spends that much time in swimming pools. “Some days, I’m in a pool for 12 hours,” she says with a grin. “I love teaching…I love what I do.”

Christina teaches people how to swim, from the very young—water babies, she calls her 8-month-old students—to a middle-aged adult fulfilling a “bucket list” wish to overcome his deep-seated fear of water.

She and her husband, Bryan, both of Hobe Sound, recently founded Swim with Gills, a traveling swim school, where Red Cross-certified instructors teach at either community or backyard pools to fit parents’ busy schedules. They also teach open-water swimming for tri-athletes and junior life-guarding, which is Bryan’s specialty, and they provide Red Cross lifeguards for private beach and pool parties.

A new addition to their range of services includes an inflatable projection screen that’s 16-feet tall so party-goers may watch either special TV events like the Super Bowl or have a neighborhood movie night. Their primary commitment, though, is to young children.

“We teach children to swim in steps, beginning with making them feel comfortable in the water,” Christina says. “We progress from there, at the child’s pace, not ours.

“We build a trust with our swimmers, and this builds their self confidence in the water,” she adds. “This is the cornerstone for our Learn-to-Swim program. Then as they progress, we begin teaching the various strokes.” At the most advanced level, the swimmers are called “sharks.”

Swim With Gills was recently recognized by the USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash Program and is now part of the Swim for Life Foundation’s Safer 3 Drowning Prevention Program after analyzing Swim With Gills’ curriculum and teacher-student ratios. This recognition allows Swim With Gills to apply for swim scholarships for economically disadvantaged children in the area.

Christina also attends the Hobe Sound/Port Salerno Rotary Club meetings and endorses its “Josh the Baby Otter” program that promotes teaching toddlers how to float. Rotarians, along with a 7-foot tall “baby” otter, make a presentation and provide books at no charge to kindergarten and preschool classrooms throughout the county.

“There actually are a lot of muscles involved in learning how to float,” Christina explains. “The brain has to map those muscles. It’s not easy for either an adult or a child, and it takes time. Our training method—unlike many ‘survival’ courses that last one to five days—is non-aggressive. We want to build on a child’s trust of adults, build their self-confidence in the water, and we use progressive games to teach. Often it seems like we’re just playing, but, in fact, they are learning to swim.”

This does not mean that Christina is a push-over, however, as the parents of 6-year-old Tyson Colen, Miriam and Andrew Colen, can attest. “Christina is very professional,” says Andrew, who accompanies Tyson to most of his lessons in the Parkwood Community pool, “but my wife just couldn’t take it when she first came to his lessons. She just felt Christina pushed Tyson too hard. Actually, Tyson has to be pushed or he won’t do anything…It’s hard for him, so he doesn’t want do it, but over the past year with Christina, we’ve seen a world of difference in Tyson. A world of difference.”

Tyson, whose body is partially paralyzed on his right side due to a stroke he suffered at birth, is enrolled in one of Christina’s adaptive swimming courses. “We just tailor each lesson to the particular child’s abilities, strengths and his weaknesses, and we start by overcoming their fear of the water,” Christina says. “The approach to teaching our adaptive swimmers is similar to our regular program, because we tailor everything to the child’s ability and progress.”

Part of Tyson’s swim hour includes swimming with fins to help with the flexibility of his ankles and to learn to point his toes. She also uses “mermaid” fins to help Tyson learn the butterfly stroke, which significantly strengthens his arms and shoulders.

A reward for completing a task successfully, such as retrieving rings from the bottom of the pool, solving a puzzle by treading water as he retrieves floating puzzle pieces or completing that backstroke from one end of the pool to the other, is the freedom to jump into the water from poolside, an activity most children take for granted.

“Basically, she had to teach him how to jump first,” Andrew says quietly, watching his son bunny-hop along the side of the pool before he jumps in again.

Tyson’s remarkable progress gives his father hope that, one day, his son will be part of a swim team.

“I know he’ll never be an Olympic swimmer or anything like that,” he adds, “but I know he’s going to become a good swimmer, good enough to be on a team and be able to experience all that sports can offer. He would never have been able to do that otherwise.”

He attributes that progress to Christina, whom he says has helped his son as much, if not more even, than Tyson’s many physical therapists and occupational therapists required since his birth.

“I think she’s the best;” he says. “At least, I don’t think there’s anyone better.”

For more information about Swim With Gills, go to their website at