By Valerie Shelton | Reporter
After teaching 60,000-plus children in the Clovis and Fresno area to swim over six decades, 80-year-old Jan Thomas is finally ready to say farewell to her beloved swim school.
“Over the years, people have asked me how long I was going to keep going and I would say forever. I’ve lived this American dream and I wanted it to last forever,” Thomas said. “But forever isn’t always forever.”
The Jan Thomas Swim School, located along Willow near Shepherd, in Clovis, has continued to grow each season with 1,400 kids taking lessons this summer alone. It is known as the largest seasonal swim school in the United States, Thomas said, as well as the busiest swim school with the oldest owner. While business has been booming, Thomas said she and her daughter, Becky, who comes back to Clovis each summer from Utah to spend nine hours in the pool each day observing lessons, are not getting any younger.
“We didn’t know this would be the year, but about the middle of the summer, my daughter and I decided maybe it’s time,” Thomas said.
Though she hesitated, Thomas said she knows the time has come to close shop.
“It’s a sad time but it is time,” Thomas said. “There are always kids that need to learn to swim, there are just more and more kids. I talked to my son in the Bay Area and told him I thought we’d at least go one more year and he told me if I feel this is the year, it’s the year. If I went another year, it is just a number. You can only go for so long.”
The origins of the popular area swim school trace back to Jan herself, who at 14 years old decided all she wanted to do was swim and dive.
“I’m from a little town in South Dakota of about 400 people, but the town had a pool and I taught myself how to swim … I tell you I wanted to live in that pool,” Thomas said.
When she turned 18, Thomas hopped on a train headed for the Los Angeles Athletic Club, where she was a diver. After that, she started getting gigs as a swimming and diving instructor at a small, but famous, Hollywood swim school. After meeting her husband, however, the two decided to relocate to the Fresno area sight unseen, as they felt it was a better place to raise a family.
“I came here and got a business card that said “Have Swimsuit, Will Travel” and I went to hundreds of homes all over as far as Porterville and up to Merced and I was teaching kids to swim,” Thomas said.
From those one-on-one lessons, her little business grew. She soon put a small pool in her backyard and hired three teachers to help her with lessons, but the space just wasn’t big enough, so she and her husband began looking for a property with the proper zoning to build a swim school. The Willow property was perfect—it was on a busy, but not too busy street, there were no neighbors at the time, and it was a great location. The only issue? It wasn’t for sale. That didn’t stop Thomas and her husband from asking the owners of the then 7-year-old home if they would sell. And after sitting on the idea for three days, they did.
“That was 46 years ago,” Thomas said. “We moved in and put in the first pool and we filled it so fast we had to put in the second pool 28 years ago. Then, we filled it, and I remember saying to my husband then that if I were 15 years younger I could put in a third pool. That is how it all happened. Since adding the second pool, we can handle up to 1,500 children a summer and we are only open 51 days, four days a week for 13 weeks. Thousands and thousands of kids have stood on the podium (after learning to swim) and I have a stellar group of swim teachers full of integrity.”
Thomas said it is her outstanding group of teachers and the school’s tried and true method that has kept kids coming back generation after generation.
“It is so satisfying to see these kids learn to swim,” Thomas said. “We’re on a third or fourth generation here, so many people out here had lessons out here when they were little. The average age out here is 2, 3 and 4 and everyone is swimming, not just blowing bubbles. Everyone learns to swim, no ifs, ands or buts.”
After the final group of newly minted swimmers stands of the podium Aug. 3, Thomas said she looks forward to spending less days scheduling lessons and more days scheduling her own travels. She and Becky, who works as a motivational speaker in Utah, plan to share business tips at seminars around the country.
“We’re going to help other in building their businesses, not just swim schools, but all types of businesses,” Thomas said. “We’ve done it right and know how it works, so now we’re going to help others.”
It was also recently announced that come November, Thomas will be inducted into the Fresno County Athletic Hall of Fame.