Teacher's stroke of success Swimming: A Woodlawn man has made his name in Baltimore for 36 years for his teaching techniques.

July 11, 1996|By MARILYN McCRAVEN | MARILYN McCRAVEN,SUN STAFF

A near-tragedy helped propel Marvin A. Thorpe from the sidelines to the deep well of swimming instruction nearly 30 years ago, and as a result hundreds of Baltimoreans have learned to swim in his backyard Woodlawn pool.

In some high-level Baltimore circles, he's revered.

"His work has probably saved a lot of lives as well as improved the health of a number of children and adults," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. Thorpe taught the mayor's daughter, Kathy, to swim a number of years ago.

The pivotal event in Thorpe's swimming instruction career was the near-drowning in 1970 of his 3-year-old son and namesake in the family's pool. Thorpe almost immediately began teaching the boy to swim.

Two weeks later, Marvin A. Thorpe II could swim the 18-foot length of the pool and bragged about that feat to his friends.

"After Marvin started talking about it, the children's parents started calling," Thorpe said.

It wasn't long before Thorpe, who has been a certified Red Cross water safety instructor since 1950, had a bustling summertime business.

Thorpe credits expansion of civil rights for blacks with the rapid expansion of his business.

"Many adults in this area didn't have the opportunity to learn to swim when they were kids," he said. "In 1961, when I came to Baltimore, there were only about three [public] pools available to black folks in Baltimore.

"As so many opportunities opened to us to travel, go on cruises, people want their whole families to learn how to swim."

"He's a good example of the power of word-of-mouth advertising," said Portia Harris, assistant director of the city's Aquatics Division, who says Thorpe has probably taught more local African-Americans to swim than any other individual.

This summer, Thorpe says he will teach about 80 people, mostly children, in small group sessions that meet two hours a day every weekday for two weeks. He charges $70 for the 20-hour course, but that may be reduced based on need.

In the adult classes, which he began teaching in 1985, peer pressure is key: "People will say, 'That woman is 63 years old. If she can do it, I know I can do it,' " Thorpe said.

Another incentive is the ceremony at the end of each session. That's when students demonstrate what they've learned before an audience of families and friends. Thorpe distributes certificates to each graduate, recognizing their accomplishments.

People who have taken his course or sent their children rave about the effectiveness of his teaching methods.

"He taught both my children to swim," said Clinton R. Coleman, spokesman for Schmoke. "Neither of them would put a toe in the water, and after two weeks with him they were jumping off the diving board."

Growing up in Lynchburg, Va., under strict Jim Crow laws, Thorpe said he learned to swim at a young age in a racially segregated public pool. As a teen-ager, he worked as a lifeguard there and, while on leave from the Air Force, put on swimming exhibitions at the pool.

"I always liked water," Thorpe said. "I like the way it feels on my body. When I see [a body of] water, it just makes me smile."

In the '60s, Thorpe directed several city recreation centers before joining the school system in 1969 as a physical education teacher, including a four-year stint as swim and tennis coach at Southwest High School.

There Thorpe says he realized that swimming instruction in the city schools was ineffective because classes were too large and weren't held frequently enough.

"I learned from teaching my own kids that it's easier to learn to swim if you have a class everyday, and a two-hour period [over two weeks] is ideal," said the father of four grown children.

Nothing in front of Thorpe's redbrick and powder-blue-trim home greatly distinguishes it from the surrounding neatly kept ranchers. However, the back yard is a different story.

The L-shaped pool is set in a wide swath of green guarded by privacy fencing on each side and a sound-barrier at the end, separating it from the noisy Beltway.

Inside a sun room attached to the house is a full bath for students who want to shower and change before and after classes. Park benches and patio furniture give an atmosphere of a neighborhood pool party at first glance.

Closer inspection shows a lot of hard work being done as some adults shed longtime fears of water.

Dressed in loose-cut swimming trunks and a nylon cap pulled over his head, with his wavy, gray ponytail sticking out in back, Thorpe, 63, repeatedly wades into the pool to demonstrate a stroke, straighten a kick or shout one of his aphorisms.

To a college sophomore struggling to keep his legs straight: "Don't bend those knees, or you'll loose your money," Thorpe shouts. He had told the young man to imagine that his pockets were full of cash and bending his knees would let it escape.

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