A life-changing experience led Steve Ott to making a career out of teaching kids how to swim.
Ott, director of the new Foss Swim School in Sun Prairie, said he was working part-time at another Foss school when it received a letter from a fifth-grader who credited his swim lessons for saving his life. The boy was able to swim to shore after he accidentally fell into the Chicago River fully clothed. Earlier, he had practiced swimming wearing a sweatshirt and sweatpants at the school.
“I had like an (aha) moment,” said Ott, who had been working as a sales director at a logistics company. “I saved someone’s life by teaching him the skills.”
The experience also has shaped the kind of director he is today and the passion he shares with his staff.
“I’m hands-on with the people here,” he said.
As director, Ott was able to see the new Sun Prairie school being built. He saw the pool being filled and then come to life as energetic young students take lessons.
Grand opening for the pool was Oct. 14 in a fast-growing area on the edge of Sun Prairie. It was several months later than planned because construction was delayed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jon and Susan Foss started Foss Swim School, based in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, in 1993. The Sun Prairie location is the first to open in Wisconsin. Having opened schools in North Dakota, Iowa and Missouri before the pandemic, Foss Swim School views this as its first step of returning to expansion plans.
Mary Woodman, of Columbus, said she signed up her sons — Kye, 8, and Brek, 6 — because she liked the school’s philosophy when she looked it up online, then she called and talked to Ott.
“(The school teaches) love for the water and being safe but not necessarily focusing on the big Olympic swimmers,” she said. “They don’t have to be competitive.”
She said she also liked the small class sizes, the warm, 91-degree water and the convenience of the school at 2670 W. Main St., off Highway 151.
Kye said he also liked the pool temperature because he’s “really sensitive.”
“They’re really kind to the kids,” he added.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the school is limiting capacity to 25 percent but it is now at only about 20 percent capacity as it struggles during the crisis, Ott said. Protocols are in place, and Ott said he likes being in charge of the safety at the school, something he attributes to being raised by his father, who was a Marine.
Kelli Kroetz, who lives in Sun Prairie, signed up her children — Gavin, 5, and Delainey, 3 — because she likes supporting local businesses. She said it feels safe because of the pandemic protocols.
The schools teach students to love the water because once they start to have fun that will build their confidence and that leads to mastery of the skills, Ott said.
While most of the swimmers start around age 3 or 4, students can be as young as six months and can include adults.
Swim camps will start later this winter. Once it is safe again to do so, the school also will offer fun meets to allow the swimmers to practice their skills and open swims so families can enjoy the pool together while also getting tips on techniques from staff.
Through a partnership, Barnes and Noble provides swimming-related books for families to read as they wait for lessons to begin.
Kevin Vesper signed up his sons — Mason, 8, and Dekker, 5 — in part because he lives down the street.
“They seem to give us a lot of feedback, too, as far as how they’re doing it,” Vesper said.
As Merril Raimer watched her daughter, Layla Mack, 3, take lessons, a Foss bag was next to her feet. She said her daughter received the bag, towel and goggles as a school-opening gift.
Raimer, who lives on Madison’s East Side and had worked at a Foss Swim School in Minnesota, said she was excited to enroll Layla in lessons because she knows how good the teaching system is.
“She loves it. She has a lot of fun,” Raimer said. “Every day she asks if it’s swim class day.”