Woman opens up backyard pool for neighbourhood swim lessons years after near-drowning of toddler son

The dramatic image of her toddler son floating motionless in the family pool over 30 years ago has prompted a Winnipeg mother to open her pool to neighbourhood families and teach their kids to swim.

“I don’t want anyone to ever go through what I went through that day,” said Julia Puranen. 

It was a summer day in 1987 when Puranen was teaching her son, who was 13 days shy of his third birthday, how to swim in their backyard pool.

She heard a knock at the gate, so she climbed out and told her son to hold onto the ladder in the shallow end while she went to let the person in.

“After unlocking the gate I turned around and he was under the water, eyes open, mouth open,” she said. “It happened so fast.”

The pool here is 98% of the time empty, so I thought why not let them hire their own instructor, and so I just decided to fill a need.– Julia Puranen

Paramedics arrived and rushed her boy to the hospital. His heart stopped three times on the way, said Puranen.

Her son was in hospital for a week recovering and eventually sent home, but during those tense few days after the near-drowning police visited Puranen.

She was charged with criminal neglect, attempted murder and child abuse. Police pulled the charges when her son pulled through, but they threatened to reinstate them if he died in the following two years, said Puranen.

“It’s not something I like to remember,” she said. “It was just me being irresponsible and not taking him out of the water.”

‘Very strict’ pool rules

Puranen doesn’t want anyone to go through what she did, which is why she now hosts neighbourhood families in her pool so they can use the space to safely learn how to swim under her watchful eye.

The idea stemmed from Facebook posts from young mothers in her neighbourhood this winter. They wanted their kids to have swimming lessons but were encountering issues getting them enrolled in lessons.

Swim instructor Gail Puhawan helps a child learn how to float in Puranen’s pool. (Wendy Parker/CBC)

“The pool here is 98 per cent of the time empty, so I thought why not let them hire their own instructor, and so I just decided to fill a need,” said Puranen.

“Those who come are happy, and they found out very, very quickly that I am very, very strict.”

Candida Sousa-Lopes and her daughter Marlina Sousa-Lopes are taking advantage.

Marlina had taken lessons but was having challenges. Candida said she felt the lessons were few and far between and her daughter needed to keep at it more frequently.

‘Like a paradise’

“It felt like she needed a little bit more instruction on how to just move her body in the water,” said Candida.

She started bringing Marlina to Puranen’s pool in between lessons, and that’s made all the difference.

“It’s like a paradise here in this beautiful pool,” she said. “It’s been so good, because by the second lesson my daughter was swimming in the deep end without any floatation device.”

Marlina Sousa-Lopes says she loves learning to swim in Prunen’s pool. (Wendy Parker)

Candida said her heart swells seeing how the extra swim sessions at the pool, combined with the beautiful atmosphere, have made her daughter more capable in the water. “It’s fun,” said Marlina. “I do handstands in the shallow end.”

‘Proud of progress’

Patricia Sawicki’s son Glenwood, 8, takes lessons at Puranen’s. He has sensory processing delays and has in the past been afraid of going into the water, said Sawicki.

She started taking Glenwood to Puranen’s to avoid large class sizes at community pools. As a home-schooler and soon-to-be mother of eight, Sawicki said the logistics and cost of getting Glenwood to and from regularly scheduled lessons posed a challenge.

To her surprise, Sawicki says her son has warmed up to the outdoor pool.

“He doesn’t even like to put his foot in the water, so to see the progress he’s made in a small class size is absolutely wonderful,” she said.

Glenwood grins on the steps into Puranen’s pool. (Wendy Parker)

“I’m very proud of the progress he’s made because he does have learning challenges. I never thought he would do it,” said Sawicki. “It’s an amazing step forward.”

Puranen said seeing the fear in kids like Glenwood and Marlina turn into joy makes her feel like her efforts mean something.

“I cannot explain to you how that makes me feel knowing that from this day forward, if someone were to push her into a lake, push her off a dock, throw her out of a boat, she would survive,” said Puranen.

“I had a small part, just a small part, and I am very, very grateful.” 

Swim instructor Gail Puhawan teaches Coltin Pereira, left, Payton Poirier, right, and another child some floating and swimming techniques. (Wendy Parker)