From Grief to Success: SWIMKids USA’s Lana Whitehead looks back on 50 years

By Sue Breding

The career choice of owning a business was both unusual and challenging for a woman in 1971. Even now, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, women-owned firms make up only about 20% of the total number of businesses in the country.

So, just imagine what it was like 50 years ago when Lana Whitehead wanted to open her own swim school in an era when occupations considered “the norm” for females were narrow.

“It was definitely a nontraditional choice in a time when the workforce was very male dominated,” says Whitehead, founder and president of SWIMkids USA.

But having witnessed the heart-wrenching grief of two of her friends who had tragically lost their young children due to drowning, nothing could deter her. Their grief shaped her life as she developed a passion to make a difference and increase awareness about the dangers of drowning.

At that time, the American Academy of Pediatrics was recommending to parents that they start swim lessons for their children at age 5. But Whitehead began to experiment with her infant son, Lance, she found that the water can be a great bonding experience. More importantly, she realized young children can begin to learn swim skills much earlier than age 5.

Whitehead’s calm and patient approach with students made her a popular teacher. She believed learning can be fun and children thrive when they are encouraged and praised for their successes. The result? Her business thrived.

Whitehead built a curriculum based on her belief that in addition to teaching children swim strokes, that there were other things a swim school could do. These include offering infant and baby swim classes and she became a pioneer when it came to swim schools purposefully teaching drowning prevention skills.

She developed new techniques so children as young as age 1 can begin to learn swim safety moves. For example, she began to teach students to swim, roll to their back in a float and then swim again to safety in case they faced an emergency.

With SWIMkids USA in Mesa, Whitehead has not only built one of the finest swim schools in the nation, but she is also credited with developing highly effective drowning prevention techniques and programs.

And for all of that, Whitehead was awarded the prestigious 2021 U.S. Swim School Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. This highly prestigious national award is based on career longevity, philanthropic endeavors and lasting contributions to others. 

The Lifetime Achievement Award was created by the association’s board of directors to honor individuals who have helped the “learn-to-swim” industry rise to new levels and lift other swim school owners.

“It is such a great honor to be part of the exclusive group of swim-industry professionals who have received this award in the past,” Whitehead says.

“I had always held it up as an unachievable thing and am surprised and humbled that I would be selected to receive such a prestigious honor.”

Tracy Koleber, the association’s board president, said, “Lana has been a leader and mentor to many, and she’s been on the forefront of researching brain development and the many benefits of swimming.

“I met Lana 10 years ago and was blown away by her kindness and welcoming personality.”

For almost 30 years Whitehead has worked tirelessly as a member of the U.S. Swim School Association, receiving the Humanitarian Award in 2008 and the Hall of Fame award in 2012. She has dedicated herself in impactful ways to helping other swim school owners achieve their full potential.

Her passion has reached far beyond the walls of her family-owned swim school in Mesa. She earned degrees in exercise physiology and special education from ASU and has written five books about her techniques as well as her findings about how movement benefits learning and the brain.

She is a member of the American College of Sports Medicine and her involvement in the world of swimming as an author, educator and speaker has taken her around the world including to the U.S. Olympic Training Center, World Baby Congress, National Drowning Prevention Alliance and she was part of a national sports medicine delegation to China.

Whitehead also co-created the Water Smart Babies program where pediatricians write “prescriptions” for water safety measures. Whitehead was a major part of the effort to write the booklet and launch an informative website.

This program is being used by doctors across the United States because it gives them an easy way to communicate to parents the importance of things like pool fences, knowing CPR, supervision at all times and how swim lessons save lives. The idea behind it is that if a parent is told by a pediatrician that keeping their child safe around water is vital, they will be likely to pay close attention to the warnings.

Her vast knowledge has made her a sought-after resource in the local and national media as a go-to expert on topics of swimming and water safety — even appearing on national shows such as “Today” and the “CBS Early Show.”

Whitehead’s career awards are plentiful and include the Spirit of Enterprise Award for Excellence in Entrepreneurship from ASU’s W.P. Carey School of Business, the Adolph Kiefer Safety Commendation and Hall of Fame Honor from USA Swimming and the G. Harold Martin Award for lifesaving and instruction from the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Having just received her newest honor, USSSA’s Lifetime Achievement Award right as she is celebrating the golden anniversary of when she started her business as a new mom with a vision to make a difference, allows her to look back to 1971 with immense pride.

“The awards shine light on the mission which from the beginning has always been to teach even the youngest children lifesaving swim skills,” Whitehead says.