Andre Dawson opens Baby Otter Aquatic Center in Lombard
As a gifted athlete, many things came naturally to Chicago Cubs legend Andre Dawson, including the ability to turn on a 98 mph fastball.
Swimming, however, wasn't on the list.
Now 63, the Hall of Famer didn't learn how to handle himself in the water until about 14 years ago, when he was asked to be a national spokesman for the south Florida-based Baby Otter Swim School.
"The first thing I said was, 'I'm going to have to learn how to swim, so you're going to have to teach me,'" Dawson said of his first meeting with Baby Otter founders Marlene Bloom and Mindy York.
On Monday, Dawson was in the pool doing drills with beginning swimmers to open the Baby Otter Andre Dawson Aquatic Center at the Westin Lombard Yorktown Center hotel.
The program, which Bloom created in 1976 as a way to protect her 2-year-old daughter from drowning in the family pool, emphasizes the "Turn, Kick, Reach" method and strives to teach children as young as 8 months how to swim in just five consecutive half-hour private lessons.
"As a former educator, I know children need the consecutive days of instruction and practice to really make sure the process becomes second-nature," Bloom said. "That's why my program works. We teach the kids how to turn back to where they fell in the water and kick their way back to reach the side of the pool and save themselves."
Bloom said the Lombard "territory" was gifted to Dawson for his work promoting the program over the years.
"He made it very clear he wanted it to be in Chicago and we very much wanted to be in the Chicago market," Bloom said.
Parents of children 9 months and older can register for the private lessons online at babyotter.com. The cost is $499 per child and there is a 10 percent discount for enrolling multiple children.
The Westin pool will be available for lessons all week.
For Dawson, who said he nearly had a tragic water accident as a teen, watching babies and children succeed in the program is inspiring.
"It's personal for me. It took 50 years for me to get in the water," he said. "The excitement for me now is seeing the kids after day five, how they really are more at ease. Learning how to swim and save yourself really is a life changer and this program is going to save some lives in this community."