We all remember influential teachers: The English instructor who convinced us we could write. The biology teacher who pointed us to a career in medicine. The middle school staff member who helped us get through a difficult time in life.
But who remembers the person who taught us to swim?
Phil Walklet has done that for thousands of Westporters, of all ages. At Staples — where he runs the Parks and Recreation Department’s program (and manages the lifeguards) — Walklet works with 3-year-olds. And 80-year-olds.
They love him. Walklet is a natural teacher.
He’s a lifelong swimmer too. Growing up in Williamsburg, Virginia, he and his 7 siblings were always on swim teams.
In 1969 — the summer after he graduated from high school — Walklet’s father got a job in New York. The family moved to Weston. He moved on to Clemson University.
The swim program was insignificant — the team used a 20-yard YMCA pool — and after a while Walklet transferred. He worked at several different jobs, including teaching small kids at the Staples pool.
A year later Walklet became assistant director of the Longshore pool. He’s now the director — a job whose timing works well with his school-year job (security supervisor at Greenwich High).
At Staples, Walklet works with his brother Colin and daughter Courtney. “She’s amazing,” he says proudly. “She’s so good with kids with autism and other challenges. She’s like a horse whisperer.”
He’s no slouch himself.
Walklet loves teaching. “It’s in our blood,” he says. “Back in Virginia, there was very little instruction. Now we break everything down.”
He laughs. “We didn’t even wear goggles.”
With 3-year-olds, Walklet says, “I put myself at their level. You can’t push them too hard. To trust the water, they have to trust you.”
Once they do, it’s a simple process: “Put your face in the water. Glide. Kick. Breathe.” Walklet goes at whatever pace is right, for each individual child.
“I’ve taught kids who were found at the bottom of a pool,” he says. “That’s so challenging. I just circle around, try different things, then come back so they’re not thinking about that anymore.”
Teaching continuing education swimming to adults on Wednesday evenings, Walklet sees a wide range of abilities.
One 80-year-old man — you thought I was kidding? — was traumatized as a child. All his life, he feared the water.
“I got him to move, with a kickboard,” Walklet recalls. “He didn’t learn to swim, but he was so grateful that he could be independent in the water.”
The key, Walklet says, is for a swimmer to feel comfortable and relaxed. “The rest is easy.”
Now in his mid-60s, Walklet has no plans to retire. Swimming has been part of his life forever. At Staples and Longshore, the pools still beckon.