When asked what led to her career as a swimming instructor, Joanne McDonald is characteristically upfront.
“I’ll be honest with you, I was able to make some money doing it,” she said. “It can be profitable and, in the summer, it’s a nice job.”
For McDonald, that “nice job” has been a 44-year gig at Lomas Santa Fe Country Club in Solana Beach, and she’s still going strong.
“I feel that everyone who lives in Southern California should know how to swim,” the Encinitas resident said. “They don’t need to do a perfect breaststroke or butterfly, but they need to know how to take care of themselves in the water.”
Solana Beach resident Yvette Magnaghi is among those parents who put their children under McDonald’s tutelage.
Like thousands of other children in the area, each of Magnaghi’s children — 24-year-old Matthew, 21-year-old Marissa and 9-year-old Aubree — learned to float, stroke and kick from McDonald.
“She’s pretty much taught the kids of almost everyone I know how to swim,” the mother said. “She has a really proven method and a gentle approach. ... It’s an effective swim program and the kids like to go. ... They trust her and learn from her.”
A native of a town outside of Chicago, McDonald said her career path stems from taking a class on swimming instruction while she was attending Illinois State University.
“It was a whim,” she said. “I was never a very good swimmer. I never have been, but it kind of opened doors.”
She taught classes through the Girl Scouts and worked at various centers before arriving in his region and landing at the Lomas Santa Fe club. Initially, she taught classes through a Red Cross program.
Now, she serves as the club’s aquatics director and oversees a staff of seven instructors. McDonald estimates that each summer she and the instructors teach 800 to 1,000 students from ages 3 and up how to swim.
The fee-sponsored program, which is open to the public, is aimed at teaching beginners and fledgling swimmers, not those who have mastered the basics. Information is available at lsfswim.com, email@example.com and 858-755-4173.
“I don’t know how to teach them to go faster and faster, and I don’t teach them to do the butterfly,” she said.
She derives satisfaction from preparing children with the fundamentals of surviving and thriving in the water.
“It never gets old seeing a kid learn to swim,” she said.
McDonald is particularly proud of being able to teach children with special needs.
For 25 years, she said, she was the volunteer head coach for North County Special Olympics athletes.
“It was a special part of my life,” McDonald said. “I just kept helping and coaching as there were not many people who could help, especially with a swimming background.”
In addition to weekly Saturday practice, McDonald took the swimmers to many meets and events over the years.
“The parents were all so very appreciative of my help and to be able to get their athletes in the water,” she said. “I gave many volunteer hours ... and it did not go unnoticed.”
When asked her age, McDonald would only reply “over the hump.”
She admits, however, that some of the students she’s had in recent years were the children of her previous learners.
“I guess it’s bad that I’ve been around so long, but it’s good that they’re sending their kids to me,” she said.
Being a successful instructor requires patience, while the key for students is repetition, McDonald says.
“I think real consistency comes from them coming every day, Monday through Friday,” she said. “(Attending lessons) Tuesday and Thursday is fine, but by next Tuesday, they’ve forgotten.”
She said she has never had a student fail who had the physical ability and stuck with the program, even if their parents had to register them for another two-week session.
“I think with practice, they absolutely can (swim) — maybe not as beautifully as some people,” McDonald said. “But I feel everybody should be able to get around in the water. I guess that’s why I keep doing it, because I feel it’s so important.”
The community is lucky to have someone as experienced and dedicated as McDonald devoting her life to teaching children, Magnaghi said.
“I just see her as kind of a role model for everyone,” Magnaghi said. “She has an amazing work ethic. She’s the lady who’s always on the pool deck. ... She’s just a fixture there.”