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Chad Pata

In The Swim

Ben Komer turned mom Lori’s summer swim school into a year-round, full-time operation, teaching Islanders of all ages

Most people go to college to find out what they want to do with the rest of their lives. Ben Komer, co-owner of Leahi Swim School, is not most people.

“I didn’t know how much I loved it until I got to college,” says Komer, speaking of his summer job teaching swimming for his mother’s swim school. “What I learned in college is what I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to work downtown, drive a sedan and pay for parking. I wanted to wear a T-shirt and board shorts and be in and around the water playing with kids.

“I love this job. I get to have a summer job for the rest of my life.”

After his junior year at Pitzer College in Los Angeles, he told his mom Lori he wanted to take over the school that she had started in 1974 at La Pietra, but rather than just keep it as a summer occupation, as she had, he wanted to turn into a full-time career.

Komer had grown up at the pool – he was the naked toddler wobbling around the edge as his mother taught others floating techniques – swimming by 18 months, and in his early teens his chores always revolved around the water. (“Wanna eat dinner tonight?” his mom would ask. “Then go teach this lesson.”)

His vision for the school was bigger, but his vision for everything always has been bigger. Only a year after he began swimming competitively for the first time in college, he decided he wanted to swim in the Olympics and in 2004 came within a quarter second of making the team.

Unfettered by coming up just short in one aspect of the pool, he threw his full dedication into another, transforming Leahi Swim School into a year-round program at two locations, one in Manoa and one in Pearl City.

He did a massive renovation at the Pearl City location (“when we got here, the pool was green and the fence was white,” recalls Komer), pouring $330,000 into it to make it what he says is now the best teaching pool in the state.

“If you are not comfortable in the water, you need a pool where you can practice and stand up,” says Komer, who graduated from Punahou in 1998. “Seventy-five percent of our pool is less than 4 feet deep.”

Around the edge of the shallow areas he has an 8-inch-deep ledge for students to sit on. That way, the kids are sitting looking at the instructor just as they would in school, rather than hanging onto the side of the pool and looking over their shoulder.

Anyone who has ever taken swim lessons early in the day remembers the same complaint, the water is too cold, but Leahi has eliminated this excuse by heating the pool to 90 degrees year ’round.

The school also is instituting the use of technology to help in training. With waterproof iPads the instructors actually can film the student in the water and then let them see themselves immediately, so they can see on the screen the improvements they need to make.

But perhaps the most important difference between Leahi and other swim schools, according to Komer, is its emphasis on teaching swimming “Hawaiian style.” A fifth-generation Islander, Komer looks to teach kids according to their needs and treats everyone as family.

The classes are filled according to skill levels, not age. So if your 3-year-old can swim the length of the pool, he or she will be in a higher class than an 8-year-old who only dog paddles.

As for the family aspect, he seeks consistency by keeping children with the same instructor for every class. Each instructor is addressed as “uncle” or “auntie,” and many of the relationships that are formed here last a lifetime.

“We don’t force the kids to do anything; learning to swim at Leahi is fun,” says Komer. “We want the kids to enjoy the water, because when they are enjoying the water, they are not going to want to get out and want to keep learning. We don’t throw them in or dunk them; it is all TLC and aloha.”

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