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Life lessons: Girl who nearly drowned in Lake Okabena in 2011 learning to swim

YMCA fitness instructor Tina Nickel helps second grader Kelly Sandoval Chilel in the pool after she jumped off the platform. Chilel is among 325 students who have learned basic water and swimming lessons during the past four weeks through the JC Learn To Swim program. Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe1 / 2
Kelly Sandoval Chilel is all smiles as she comes off the tornado slide inside the YMCA Aquatics Center Thursday morning in Worthington. Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe2 / 2

WORTHINGTON — Kelly Sandoval Chilel was all smiles as she came out of the spout at the end of the tornado slide at the Worthington Area YMCA’s Aquatics Center Thursday morning in Worthington.

As she splashed into the water under the guidance of YMCA fitness instructor Tina Nickel, Chilel was eager to demonstrate all that she had learned during the past two weeks — from swimming under water to jumping off the platform.

Her enjoyment of the water today is much different from her experience on a sunny August afternoon in 2011. Chilel and her mother were splashing around in Lake Okabena at Sailboard Beach when they floated too far from shore and could no longer touch the bottom. Neither knew how to swim.

The two could have drowned had it not been for the heroic efforts of Brewster woman Jami Cummings, who happened to be driving by when she heard screams and saw people pointing at the water.

It wasn’t until Cummings reached the victim — face down at that point and struggling to stay afloat — that she discovered there was a young child clinging to the woman.

Cummings helped both individuals to shore, and has since been honored locally and statewide for her lifesaving efforts.

The incident led to a campaign to improve water safety and teach children, at the very least, the basics of swimming. In the spring of 2012, the first classes of second-grade students from Worthington’s Prairie Elementary and St. Mary’s, Round Lake-Brewster, Adrian and Worthington Christian completed the two-week JC Learn to Swim program.

Now in its third year, the program boasts hundreds of graduates — 325 this spring alone — including Chilel, the young girl at the heart of it all.

The 2014 program began with a kick-off on March 31 at Prairie Elementary, during which second-graders were told what they would be doing at the indoor swimming pool. It was the final step in the coordination process, which included making sure all students had swimwear, a towel and parental permission to participate.

Tasha Raymo, Chilel’s teacher, said it took some encouragement on behalf of both her and Cummings to convince Chilel’s “very reluctant” parents that the young girl participate in the program.

Chilel, on the other hand, seemed to have little to fear.

“I was scared, but seeing Tina helped out,” she said, speaking of her swimming instructor.

The actual lessons began on April 1, and students brought a mixture of both excitement and fear, according to YMCA Aquatics Director Stephanie Gorman.

There were some tears.

“(Some were) very hesitant, very cautious, they stayed near the wall,” Gorman said of the first day of lessons.

Over the course of the two weeks — eight days in the water, the kick-off and the after party that takes place today — Gorman, along with the second-grade teachers, noticed a big difference in the students.

“You can definitely see the confidence — it glows out of them,” said Gorman.

Raymo said Chilel was timid at first, but was beaming by Thursday after going down the slide and jumping off the platform. She wasn’t quite ready to test out the diving board, but she’s come a long way.

“I’m learning floating on my back and on my tummy,” Chilel said with a smile. “I think it’s fun.”

Chilel, like her classmates, started in the children’s wading pool and worked her way into deeper waters as her confidence grew.

Students were given wristbands — red, yellow or green — based on their experience in the water. Those with red wristbands required the most guidance and had a goal to become more comfortable in the water. Yellow wristbands were for students with some basic swimming skills; their goal was to be able to swim laps in the pool by the end of two weeks. Students with green wristbands could already swim laps before the two-week program started, and volunteers worked with them to improve their technique.

By Thursday, students were jumping off the diving board, diving to retrieve objects at the bottom of the pool and generally enjoying their experiences in the water.

The YMCA had 16 instructors to help make the JC Learn to Swim program a reality this year. Volunteers included college students to local professionals and retired individuals.

“We’d like to say thank you to the YMCA staff,” said Raymo.

Today, Prairie Elementary students will celebrate their completion of the program with an awards ceremony, pizza party and a video viewing of their time in the water. Each second-grader will receive a certificate and ribbon, a participation report to take home to their parents and a free day pass for the student and his or her family to visit the YMCA.

Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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