By Martie Thompson
Janet Zeal has been teaching multiple generations of Mandarin residents how to swim for 41 years. A native Canadian, she grew up in the prairies of Manitoba — and has memories of learning to swim at age eight in the 68 degree water in the little pool in her hometown. She said at the time she was an “ok” swimmer. After high school, Janet went to nursing school and ultimately met and married her husband, physician Arnold Zeal. They are celebrating 48 years of marriage. His career as a neurosurgeon ultimately brought them to Florida. After that, she said she knew she didn’t want to go back to the snow and that she found she was “internally a Floridian at heart.” She founded School of Swimming in an effort to teach kids water safety at an early age and in a fun way. Today, the Zeals live in Mandarin and are parents to four grown sons: a general surgeon, a five-star chef, an ICU nurse and an IT professional in the financial industry.
Q: How did you come to live in Mandarin and what do you like best about it?
A: My husband is also a Canadian, and we initially moved to Gainesville for his residency at UF Shands. We moved to Jacksonville in 1977 so he could continue his career at the then University Hospital, which is now Shands. We picked the Mandarin area to live because, back then, there was really not a lot of housing on the market in our price range. We just happened to find the very best street in Mandarin — Spreading Oaks Lane — that had a forest on one side and houses on the other and lots of kids. We had two young sons at the time. Ultimately, we moved to a larger house in Mandarin, but we still love the area because it’s got a great sense of community, it’s close to shopping and activities, and of course we love the trees.
Q: How did you decide to start a swimming school?
A: I always meant to go back to nursing, but part time work meant I had to work overnights, which was not convenient for our family. I actually fell into a rabbit hole with regards to the swimming school. I used to take my two-year-old son to our apartment pool and he was a good swimmer, since he had taken swimming lessons when we lived in Gainesville. He would be jumping in the pool while other kids were hanging on to the edge and learning to kick during their lessons. The swimming instructors actually asked me if I could teach them how to teach their kids to swim like my son. In 1978, there weren’t any lessons for tiny kids that taught them safety skills. The Red Cross lessons started at age six. So, I thought, well, maybe I could do this a little bit each day and it would work for my schedule. I went back to learn from the lady in Gainesville who had taught my son to swim and then started my own swim school in 1980.
Q: What is important to teach young swimmers?
A: The number one safety skill for swimmers of all ages is to roll over and float on your back. In this position you can rest and breathe. Also, if you fall into a pool, remember to turn around and come back to where you fell in, rather than looking ahead and trying to make it to the closest wall you can see, which is often all the way across the pool. Actually, the closest wall is right behind you.
Q: What is your teaching philosophy?
A: We teach all ages through adults and including special needs children. My strength and my instructors’ strength is being able to individualize the lesson for each simmer. We adjust our teaching to the child, rather than the other way around. We want kids to have fun and be excited to come to lessons and so we teach through play. I believe everyone should learn to swim; it is a springboard to lifetime fitness.
Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?
A: I like to read, go snow skiing (I only like to visit snow) and spend time with my grandchildren.
[Author’s Note: For more safety tips for children, Janet Zeal recommends Safe Kids (www.safekids.org), an international program with a local chapter (www.safekids.org/coalition/safe-kids-northeast-florida) that focuses on injury prevention education. Visit www.schoolofswimming.com for more information about Zeal’s swimming school.]
Photo courtesy Janet Zeal
Janet Zeal and young swimming school students.