Just Keep Swimming
When you operate the longest-running swim school in the islands, you have to go with the flow at times. Mother-and-son duo Lori and Ben Komer of Lē‘ahi Swim School have done just that for five decades, keeping lessons fresh for students while looking oh, so cool.
No matter how blue life may get, the best thing to do is to stay positive and keep moving forward. Well, that’s Dory’s philosophy, anyway. When the current isn’t going in her direction, the Finding Nemo character says to “just keep swimming” as a reminder to never give up.
Coincidentally, mother and son Lori and Ben Komer have adopted the same belief — only a few decades before the cartoon blue tang came along.
The ‘ohana who own and operate Lē‘ahi Swim School, the largest and longest-running swim school in the state, are celebrating quite the feat this year: 50 years in business. The school prevailed through myriad challenges — staffing shortages, relocations and pandemic shutdowns, to name a few — but has remained a reliable resource residents of all ages can count on for their swimming lesson needs.
“It’s kind of mind blowing because it feels fresh. You don’t feel the 50 years,” says Lori, who founded the school in 1973. “What I loved about working is that every day was different. There was not one two days that were boring or the same old, same old. Whenever I had a class graduate, I would get a little sad because I really connected with the students and their moms and dads. It’s more than just getting the kids in the pool, it really is an ‘ohana.”
Back in the day, Lori, who nowadays only teaches students who call her grandma, took a water safety instructor class for fun during her freshman year of college. To pass the course, she had to teach five children how to swim. This was in California, where the water was chilly and the kids were timid, but her calm and sunny disposition won them over, and before any of them knew it, the youngins were comfortably — and skillfully — kicking and splashing in no time.
The O‘ahu native and natural aquaphile realized she had a knack for it and wondered if her ideal career need not a degree, but only a body of water and a good attitude. With her loved ones’ encouragement, she established Lē‘ahi Swim School.
“My love of teaching and children were married into one great business and lifelong dream,” she says.
At first, it was just Lori in a compact, above-ground pool housed at La Pietra – Hawai‘i School for Girls. But as enrollment numbers grew, so did her payroll. Not long after, Ben was born, which meant she had a son, employee, prodigy and successor all in one.
“If your last name is Komer, you’re going to be working for the swim school at some point in your life,” says Ben, who’s interrupted by Lori shouting, “Whether you like it or not!”
“Growing up, all I knew was the swim school,” he continues with a chuckle. “I started working when I was 10 as the bus boy. We had a school bus that would pick up preschoolers around Honolulu, and I was on the bus checking them in, buckling them in — and I wasn’t even getting paid. Then, I started teaching at 14 — and getting paid at 15 — and it’s just what you did. I got good at it really fast because I had been around the swim school my whole life. I was born and raised there.”
History has a way of repeating itself because while Ben was away at college for art and psychology, it dawned on him that his destiny, too, lay in the pool — an epiphany similar to his mother when she was the same age.
Following in her footsteps — or, rather, her swim strokes — Ben took on the leadership role in his early 20s and began transforming the school into what it is today — a year-round swim lesson utopia.
“When Lori started it, it was only a summertime gig,” says Ben. “I knew that if I wanted to make a living here in Hawai‘i, I would need to expand the business. One of the things we started to do slowly was expand to the weekdays.”
For five years, Ben hustled in and out of the water, often working from dawn to dusk to keep the business afloat. Given that most of the swim instructors were high school and college students, it was — and still is — difficult to find employees to work Mondays through Fridays. Eventually, he found a groove and the school was thriving with 100 employees teaching 2,500 students weekly at three locations — then the pandemic happened.
“After COVID, we took a big hit,” says Ben. “We lost one location completely. When we returned, we went from 61 employees to 17. We’re still clawing back from that.
“The good thing is that our reputation has always preceded us. We don’t have a problem getting clients, we just have a problem with getting staff,” he says, adding that employees are meticulously trained for about six months to meet the school’s high safety standards. “We’re growing again.”
Another facet to Lē‘ahi Swim School’s success may be its understanding that students are at different levels — and that’s OK. There are toddlers who can swim across the pool, 9-year-olds who are afraid of putting their faces in the water, and adults who are dipping their toe in the literal and proverbial waters for the first time.
“You have to gain trust with them and go at their own pace,” says Ben. “When you do that it’s going to be easier because they will accept and absorb the skills better. Lori has based all of our teaching on that — you got to have fun, be nice and have the aloha spirit, the Hawaiian-style of teaching. That’s always been a constant.
“Whenever we interview people … we don’t even care if you’re a good swimmer because we can teach you how to swim,” he adds. “I want to see if you’re a good person; if you have a big heart; if you like kids. That’s been really working for us.”
For him, it’s paramount to have dedicated and well-trained instructors because they aren’t just preparing kids to swim in a pool. They’re teaching future surfers, paddleboarders, divers, fishermen and -women, sailors and beachgoers a skill that could potentially save their lives one day. And given data from the state Department of Health that drownings are the fifth leading cause of fatal injuries among Hawai‘i residents and the leading cause of injury mortality among keiki 1-4 years old, Lē‘ahi Swim School does not take it lightly.
“A lot of these deaths could be prevented if the child knew how to swim,” says Ben. “We live in Hawai‘i — this is the best place for any and all water sports … and the common denominator is that you have to know how to swim.
“You can’t learn how to swim on the internet and you can’t read a book, you need to be in the water, getting instructions from somebody helping you because it can be very dangerous,” he says.
Beyond teaching students, Lē‘ahi Swim School has prided itself on teaching the leaders of tomorrow about what it takes it be a good employee. Instructors are usually between the ages of 16 and 22 years old, and, for most, this is their first job. The Komers foster a family-like environment (they cook lunch on the weekends and provide so many snacks the break room resembles a grocery store aisle), while also encouraging traits like responsibility, honesty and reliability.
“It’s usually everybody’s first job to be a lifeguard or swim teacher,” says Lori. “We’ve had employees work for us who are now pilots, lawyers, dentists and veterinarians.”
Anna Koethe, who’s currently director, strategic communications at HMSA, can attest to that.
“I needed a job after high school. I walked into Lē‘ahi and asked if I could work there. I had an interview a couple weeks later with Auntie Lori and it changed my life.
“I love Lē‘ahi so much,” continues Koethe. “It holds a very special place in my heart. I grew up there, I met lifelong friends there and I learned so many valuable skills. I just love the water and grew up loving the water, and to be able to share a piece of myself with my students meant so much to me. I wish I could still teach, but I have a full-time job. I appreciate that Lē‘ahi will always be there for me. I’m just so grateful for the environment and special place that Auntie Lori and Ben created that’s one of a kind.”
The Komers know it’s no small accomplishment to stand the test of time, which is why they’re evermore proud their small, family-run business is swimming along just fine.
“I’ve only been around for 44 of those 50 years, but it never occurred to me like, ‘Now we’ve made it.’ It’s just another year and it’s so much fun to be at the swim school to do this job,” says Ben. “I’ve said this ad nauseam, but my mom has created a summer job that I can have year-round for the rest of my life.”
Lē‘ahi Swim School operates at Momilani Community Center in Pearl City and Saint Francis School in Mānoa. For more information, go online to leahiswimschool.com.