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Award buoys swim teacher Award buoys swim teacher

A Hall of Fame inducts the founder of the Seal Swim School.

By ALESSANDRA DA PRA, Times Staff Writer
Published November 30, 2007



Therese Cullen Seal says she was raised in the water.

She gave her first swim lesson, to a toddler, at the age of 9. She earned $5 for it.

That's how her journey as a swim teacher began.

Last month, her love of water and passion for children led to Seal, now 65, being inducted into the U.S. Swim School Association Hall of Fame.

"I was completely surprised," said Seal, who has opened two swim schools in Hillsborough within the past two years. "To be honored by your peers, it's just very humbling."

Jeff Purchin, a member of the Arizona-based Swim School Association's board of directors, said that inductees have made exceptional contributions to the swim school profession and have at least 20 years of experience.

"She has made a lot of contributions with teaching ideas, managing ideas and she is a professional swim teacher," he said.

Seal, a native of Tarpon Springs, has been a swimmer since age 4 and an instructor for the past 30 years. As a child, she worked with her siblings at Wall Springs, a natural spring park the family once owned and operated in Pinellas County.

She started teaching at her Tampa home after installing an above ground pool in the late '70s. The business started out slow - she only had three students during the first year.

Later, she taught in schools around the Tampa Bay area before 1992, when she opened the Seal Swim School in Tarpon Springs with the help of her three daughters. She opened a school in Lutz in 2005 and another in South Tampa in 2006.

The school offers programs directed at all age groups, but focuses mostly on children because "there is such a need for the little ones."

Safety first

Safety has been Seal's main thrust. Over the years, she developed an educational water safety program for kids that consists of colorful instructional posters and an illustrated book, Swim Safe Little Seals, which she co-authored with writer and former lifeguard Jill MacGregor.

"For years we have done water safety programs, but I wanted something different, something new, something to really hook the kids with," Seal said.

She has taught the program at various schools in the Tampa Bay area and promoted and sold it at drowning prevention seminars across the country.

According to the Florida Department of Health, Florida has the highest accidental drowning death rate in the nation for children under age 4.

"If the children don't know how to swim, they don't have a chance, it just happens so quickly," said Seal. "You don't hear the child under water, they can't yell, they can't cry, and we just lose too many kids."

Through the years, Seal has taught swimming to generation after generation, as former students return to enroll their little ones in the school.

Jessica Flannigan of Tarpon Springs, 22, attended the Seal Swim School during her early teen years. Now, she takes her 2-year-old son Killian to swim there.

"She had high standards," Flannigan said. "She expected each student to give 100 percent."

Seal also gives special attention to students who may need it, like Killian, who had heart surgery at birth.

Last summer, Seal gave him private lessons for the price of regular group lessons, so his heart could be monitored at all times.

"(Seal) is very knowledgeable about what she does," said Flannigan. "She has a passion for kids and kids' interests in mind."

Helpful, yet fun

Kailand Cosgrove, 17, of Tarpon Springs is another former student. She has been a competitive swimmer for the past five years and is ranked No. 1 in her age group in the USA Triathlon.

Seal was her first swim instructor.

"She was very helpful; she is probably one of the best teachers," said Cosgrove. "She made everything very fun; she made us laugh."

Seal used to photograph Cosgrove and other students while they swam underwater. When Seal performed the butterfly in the pool, Cosgrove stopped to admire her, wishing one day to be as good as her teacher.

Seal, who now lives in Odessa, is grateful that her career has helped so many.

"I think of the years that I devoted to something that I just fairly love and to be able to do something and accomplish something like this, to do it with passion, it's amazing," she said.

[Last modified November 29, 2007, 07:49:31]

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