Article image

by Elaine K Howley

March 18, 2019

Retired physicians Anne Hayton and Robert Ashley planned for several years to teach adults how to swim

Retired physicians Anne Hayton and Robert Ashley spent their careers helping people. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’ve continued to make a difference in people’s lives after retiring by establishing and administering a successful and ongoing adult learn-to-swim program at the Casco Bay Y in Freeport, Maine.

Their decision started with the 2014 New York Times article about U.S. Masters Swimming launching its annual April Is Adult Learn-to-Swim Month campaign. The article, penned by Jane Brody, presented the story of how her father-in-law drowned at age 66 and how he wasn’t alone in being an adult unable to swim.

Compelling data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that roughly 80 percent of drownings in the U.S. happen to people at least 15 years old and that 37 percent of American adults can’t swim the length of a 25-yard pool. Those powerful statistics spoke volumes to the two as they were beginning to think about what they’d do once they retired. “We said, ‘Someday we’ll do a program like this at our Y,’ and last year was the year we both retired, so we said, ‘Let’s do it!’” Hayton says.

In September 2017, Hayton and Ashley became USMS-certified adult learn-to-swim instructors. They worked with Bill Meier, a fellow New Englander who played a big role in developing the ALTS instructor certification program and an ALTS lead instructor, and they credit his infectious passion for teaching adults to swim with the success of their program. “He’s so enthusiastic and positive. We used his curriculum and took his course, and it’s all because of him, really, that this whole program started,” Ashley says.

In addition to learning the skills they’d need to teach adults to swim, Ashley and Hayton also took advantage of a USMS Swimming Saves Lives Foundation grant awarded to the YMCA of Southern Maine’s Casco Bay branch to fund the program. (The foundation granted more than $132,000 to nearly 70 programs for 2019.)

Last year, the Y’s program served 60 students, three-quarters of which were female. Hayton and Ashley focused on attracting absolute beginners and took on many students who were downright afraid of the water. Many had no swimming experience, and some had suffered traumatic experiences. About a third of their students were new Americans—recent immigrants—and Hayton says the way many of these students approached the lessons process was simply inspiring.

“The Y gave them temporary memberships, and we would see them in the pool practicing in between lessons,” she says. “They were really dedicated and wanted to make the most of this opportunity.”

The Y’s program will run from April 2 through May 11 this year, and Hayton and Ashley expect about 70 students. They have 37 volunteers signed up to run it, something that Hayton describes as something of a surprise.

“I never dreamed that my husband could get 30 volunteers within about two weeks. It was almost as if people were waiting for an opportunity to volunteer to be adult swim-lesson instructors. It was almost magical,” she says. Hayton adds that other would-be ALTS program organizers shouldn’t underestimate their volunteer community.

The program seems to have become something of an unexpected calling for Hayton and Ashley, who demurred when asked for details about themselves. This story, they insisted, should be about their students and the program.

Hayton and Ashley have high hopes for the future of the program and hope to expand their offerings to help address the great need for water safety skills in Maine.

“Maine has a lot of lakes, rivers, and 230 miles of Atlantic coastline. We also have a lot of fishermen who don’t know how to swim. We read about the drownings—there’s usually about 30 per year who drown in Maine,” Ashley says. “Eighty percent of drowning victims are men or boys. We’re trying to reach out to the fisherman because we know a lot of them can’t swim.”


  • Adult Learn-to-Swim


  • ALTS