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Hope Floats

A West End family wants to teach the world to swim — and to live — the Morgan way.


Sweiderk has driven her sons from Northern Virginia to Richmond in hopes that Morgan Swim School will give them something she hasn't been able to give when it comes to the water: confidence. Because of Brandt's special needs and Jack's young age, she says, they've been limited to baby pools, for which both are now too big. Before these lessons, Sweiderk adds, Brandt had worn a life jacket in the water and had never gone under. For the Sweiderk boys, this is day four of what Morgan Swim School refers to as its "eight-day blitz," in which beginners get a crash course in the basics.

"One, two, three, go under, Brandt," coaches the woman everyone calls Mrs. Morgan or, out of earshot, the "Swim Nazi." Wearing a yellow visor, black bathing suit and glasses, she edges backward in the water, staying a few feet in front of Brandt and keeping her hands outstretched in case he needs them.

"The difference is, instead of this, 'Get me, get me, get me,' he knows now that he can make himself come up," she explains to Brandt's mother.

Sweiderk slaps her leg and chuckles at the progress. "Mrs. Morgan, thank you so much," she says. "You're a miracle worker."

Kerin Morgan, 47, is the founder and head instructor of Morgan Swim School, a family-based business that she and her husband, Bob, run at their West End home. Since it began in the Morgan's backyard pool a decade ago, the school has grown from 30 students to 1,400. Bob Morgan expects that number to top 1,800 by summer's end. Apart from a line listing in the Yellow Pages, all of their business is word-of-mouth.

"Everybody knows Mrs. Morgan," one poolside mom says. "She's an urban legend."

Legendary or not, and despite their booming business, murky waters lie ahead for Morgan Swim School and the Morgan family. Whether a sign of growing pains or providence, the upcoming months promise that a complaint will be resolved, a job will be lost and a new subdivision will be built next door.

With the swim school's fate up in the air, Morgan invokes a saying she learned long ago: "Our thoughts reap acts, our acts become habits, our habits determine character, and our character influences our destiny." It has become a kind of mantra not only for swimming but also for living — Morgan style. If the style somehow seems natural for this family of 13, its matriarch must make it so.

Kerin Morgan has been teaching swimming most of her life. Her theory of how the skill is learned best is simple: the younger the student, the better. But there's also no time like the present. She applies the theory relentlessly, regardless of age or ability. If a child, or an adult, for that matter, doesn't like the water, that's tough, she'd say — he doesn't have to. He just has to learn to live with it. In time, he'll master the skill, enjoy the activity and appreciate the effort. And while she doesn't produce evidence of Olympic-bound toddlers, she may be right. Take her freestyle. It's measured and sure, like her.

Parenthood has come easy to Kerin and Bob Morgan. So much so that after their fifth child they prayed hard how to proceed. That was 16 years ago. Today the Morgans have 11 children. Kerin also has had four miscarriages since her youngest was born.

Their oldest, Timothy, 24, a police officer in South Carolina, is married and expecting his first child. Jennifer, the second-born, is taking a year off from college to work as a missionary in Honduras. Because she's visiting for the summer, there are 10 children living at home. In addition to Timothy and Jennifer, there are Katheryn, Jonathan, Benjamin, twins Geoffery and Gregory, Rebecca, Gabriel, Zachary and Bethany, ranging in age down to 6.

The Morgans live in a modest two-story West End house. Kerin calls herself a stay-at-home mom. Bob works the 2 to 11 p.m. shift at Interbake Foods, a factory job he'll lose next year when the company relocates to western Virginia. The couple drives a 15-passenger van and does most of the shopping, the children say, at Costco, Food Lion and Staples.

Their house at 1212 Bowden Road smells like a combination of chlorine and laundry detergent. It holds an ample supply of books, crayons and building blocks — but little room for privacy. It's witnessed neither upgrades to central air conditioning nor cable television.

Kerin Morgan home-schools the children, always has. As a whole, they're big believers in Jesus. They're believers, too, in the transformative power of faith and the notion that hope, like a body, floats — especially when tested. And these days at the Morgans', there's plenty of testing going on.

Last month, the Morgans received a letter from Henrico County, informing them that Morgan Swim School was in violation of a zoning ordinance that restricts an at-home business from advertising in the Yellow Pages. The Morgans appealed the claim in writing within 30 days as the missive instructed, Bob Morgan says. Last week, they received a second letter from the county stating that their appeal had been denied.

Bob Morgan says the uncertainty of what may happen next has forced the family to look more closely at alternatives. In addition to their backyard pool, the Morgans — the five older children are CPR- and lifeguard-certified instructors — offer lessons at a handful of private pools throughout the region, which friends let them use free or for a small fee. The Morgans have always hoped to expand their school from its four-month spring and summer season to a year-round operation, Bob Morgan says, but they have yet to put together the money or the business plan to make it work. To build the kind of indoor-outdoor facility he envisions with two pools would cost between $750,000 and $1 million, he estimates.

"Ultimately, what we know would be best would be to move [the business]," he says, and separate the swim school from the family's home. That way, his wife's attention would not be divided between her children and her students, he points out.

Still, by the looks of things, the two have become so intertwined through the years, it's difficult to imagine the family and the school as anything other than interdependent.

On a recent Thursday, Rebecca Morgan, 11, works an 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift as a junior instructor. She begins by showing an 8-year-old student how to dive better and how to improve her backstroke so she won't be disqualified in swim meets. One of Morgan Swim School's dozen or so nonfamily instructors gives a lesson to a 3-year-old. Meanwhile, Kerin Morgan is nearby, teaching a little boy named Andrew how to swim breast stroke. "Make a circle, make a circle, cut it in half, cut it in half," she sings.

Just home from Honduras, Jennifer Morgan joins her younger siblings Gabriel, 10, and Bethany, 6, by the side of the pool. Together the three practice their Spanish. A big clock hangs from the side of the Morgans' garage over neat rows of poolside lilies and lairiope. As the long hand makes its way around and around, clusters of suited-up, goggle-gripping students come and go.

"Is someone getting the laundry going?" Kerin Morgan calls out to her son, Gregory, who dribbles a basketball on the court outside the pool area. The Morgan girls plan to drive later this afternoon to South Carolina for a visit with their brother Timothy. So time — and clean, dry clothes — are of the essence.

Bob Morgan returns home from running errands with Zachary and Geoffery. Dad restocks the supply of neon-colored, age-appropriate letters to parents along with the latest Morgan Swim School newsletter, copies of which are kept on hand by the back door.

"Rocket like Superman," Kerin Morgan says to her next young pupil. With arms out and hands clasped, the boy puts his face in the water, kicks and shoots from Morgan to the side of the pool. It's a little past noon. Without getting out of the water, she excuses herself for a moment.

"Will you see who's in the house who'll take responsibility for lunch?" she asks of Gabriel. He obliges, leaving his two sisters still counting in Spanish.

There, Jonathan, or J.J., 17, tidies up the kitchen and empties the trash. Both he and Benjamin, 15, have afternoon shifts starting soon at different auxiliary pools. Geoffery, 13, one of the twins, agrees to make lunch: hot dogs, chips and iced tea; Girl Scout cookies — Interbake's signature — are dessert.

Intermittently, there's a rap at the back door, or else it just swings open, as swimmers, both familiar and strange, ask whether they may use the Morgans' bathroom.

If there's such a thing as quiet chaos, it dwells at the Morgan house. The purr of air-conditioning units in the windows and the whish-whirl of the washing machine are accompaniment to a chorus of mealtime Morgans conversing.

After lunch, Gabriel, 10, who everyone says is the quietest Morgan, plays with LEGOs in the family room. The size of his household has its perks, he says. "I like it because you don't ever have to call somebody to do something. We're all right here."

Geoffery sits down at the piano and begins practicing a new piece he's learning. A banner on the wall in front of him reads: "Christ is the head of this household." With their chores — which are posted per child on the refrigerator — done, some of the Morgan children go upstairs to their bedrooms. There are two with a bathroom in between, Brady Bunch-style — only more children. Four girls share a mint-green room full of family photographs and toy ponies. They sleep in two queen-size beds. The boys' room is a bit messier, and it's blue. Six of them share it.

As the younger ones trail off downstairs, J.J. stays behind. He finished his high-school requirements last year at 16, took some time off to attend a disaster-preparedness program in Texas and applied early to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He made it to the final rounds before being turned down, he says, so he'll apply again this year. "I feel God's calling me into a position of leadership to serve," he says. And growing up Morgan, he figures, will help prepare him for a career in the military.

Handsome, athletic and smart, he seems as if he'd be one of the popular kids in a high school. So is he missing out by not being part of the system, indeed a youth culture, which thrives outside his house? No, he assures. He doesn't mind sharing a room with five younger brothers. They respect his space, he says, which logistically amounts to half a closet and a desk.

He remembers the days before the swim school, when his mom taught lessons to pay for piano lessons for her own children. She'd carry the older children in tow to private swim clubs and pools around town where they couldn't swim or play because they didn't belong.

That changed once the Morgans opened a pool of their own. And like a family, it seems it's been both a blessing and a burden.

To hear Kerin Morgan tell it, learning to swim is a metaphor for learning to live gracefully. Water, she might say, is the scary but natural world that angers and inspires us, from which we emerge, through practice, stronger and more capable people.

On a recent Thursday morning, she plans to demonstrate her theory to a group of visor-clad moms in bathing suits who huddle in a circle and hold their babies at arm's length, just above the flickering blue of Morgan's backyard pool.

Some of the babies wince and smile. Most wail.

"Two-year-olds are so unpredictable," one mother of a wailer observes.

"Their early years are not the years to be their buddies," Morgan says in her customarily calm, raspy voice. "What we train your child in the water is secondary to what you teach out of the water: obedience, trust, respect and self-control. Those are the qualities you want to work on with your child everywhere. We just work on them in the pool." Next she instructs the moms to practice their "rollovers."

The moms glide and bob their babies through the water and, on the count of three, guide them to float on their backs and breathe. S

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