Jump on in, the tradition is fine

Delee Perry works with Sophia Lastinger, 6, as she gives her a swimming lesson at Perry’s Swim School. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2021.
I squint at the spot on the water where I’m supposed to jump, eyes stinging from the powerful chlorine. With my toes wrapped tightly around the worn edge of the fiberglass diving board, I hesitate.

“Jump on in! It won’t hurt you!” shouts a booming voice from the side of the pool.

I bounce once, tilt my body forward in a diving motion and plunge headlong into the tepid water. As I kick hurriedly to reach the surface, a large, pruny hand roughly guides me to the swim ladder.

“Again!” says the voice.

My fellow divers and I line up at the diving board to receive instruction from Delee Perry, Marion County’s preeminent swim instructor.

Eight-year-old Sadie wanted to be a diver or synchronized swimmer. My mother indulged my desires and signed me up for diving classes with Ms. Perry.

Obviously, since you’re reading this column, you’ll note that I am neither a diver nor a synchronized swimmer.

Ms. Perry, however, has spent the last 52 years teaching countless Marion County residents of all ages to swim and dive.

Teaching swim lessons isn’t just a a job for Ms. Perry, but rather a calling— and a family business. Her father, the late Newton A. Perry, began teaching people to swim in 1923.

Perry moved to Ocala in 1922 and would often walk six miles through what was then forest and dirt roads to swim at the Silver Springs attraction. One day, Mr. Carmichael, the owner of the attraction, asked Perry if he could teach his wife to swim.

Mrs. Carmichael served as Perry’s first student and his desire to teach others to swim was born. “My father always wanted to own a house that had a swimming pool right outside where he could open a swim school,” said his daughter, Delee.

In 1951 he bought property in northeast Ocala and opened Perry’s Swim School four years later. Delee never felt any pressure to join the family business but knew it was what she was born to do.

“In ninth grade, I had to do a major paper in my civics class about what we wanted to do for a career, and I couldn’t think of anything other than wanting to be a swimming teacher. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do,” Delee explained.

Each summer, more than 300 children learn to swim from Ms. Perry; that’s more than 15,000 people over her storied 52-year career.

She said that it’s not unusual for a grandmother to be with her grandchild at swim lessons and remark, “Hey, Ms. Perry! You taught me to swim!”

Ms. Perry explained why she loves what she does, saying, “Seeing a child go from being afraid of the water to realizing they can conquer swimming is amazing. It’s my absolute favorite part. There’s a moment where you know they just get it.”

The majority of her students are under the age of 12, but she does hold an adult beginners’ swim class on Saturdays. Her oldest student was an 88-year-old man whose doctor recommended he learn to swim to help his arthritis.

Ms. Perry doesn’t plan to hang up her swimsuit until after 2023, which will mark 100 years of the Perry family teaching swimming in the state of Florida. She hopes to continue the legacy of Perry’s Swim School by having her daughter, Tasha, take over for her upon her retirement, but those details haven’t yet been worked out.

As I remarked in my last column, I know I’m often advocating for our hometown to change. However, it’s rites of passage like a peanut butter milkshake from The Hungry Bear and swim lessons from Perry’s Swim School that I hope remain constant as Ocala continues on its trajectory of enormous expansion and growth.

The unchanging nature of institutions like Perry’s Swim School can provide a sense of stability and consistency in this rapidly evolving world. There are no trendy techniques or fancy equipment at Perry’s Swim School. Ms. Perry relies on a simple, tried-and-true recipe for swimming success: person-to-person interaction, gentle instruction and consistency. It has worked for more than 15,000 students and will continue to impact hundreds more.

While some might argue that these places refusing to adapt to this ever-changing environment are archaic and inflexible, I disagree. It is brave to remain unchanged when you have a good and valued formula: placing the focus of your business on people and what you can do to make a positive impact on their lives.

I believe it’s entirely possible for us to embrace growth, and ultimately, change, while holding tightly to the ideals that these valuable institutions like Hungry Bear and Perry’s Swim School have taught us. So, here’s to change. And our cherished values remaining the same.

Have your own observations about Ocala? Share them with Sadie at sadie@ocalagazette.com.

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