Nichol Ashby, owner, and swim instructor at the Gullah Swim Academy, in Charleston teaches people of all ages and skill levels how to be safe in the water. Ashby's swim spa is equipped with water jets that create a strong current that swimmers swim against. Competitive swimmers train in this type of pool, she said. | Provided

The shady backyard of Nicole Ashby’s childhood home on Rutledge Avenue, once a place for hopscotch, soccer and playacting, is now a business that teaches water safety to save lives.

An above-ground 18-foot swim spa in a heated white tent is the centerpiece of Ashby’s home-based Gullah Swim Academy (GSA) that she and her family launched in December 2021 during the pandemic.

Before going into business, Ashby was faced with a decision to leave her full-time job as the aquatics director for the town of Mount Pleasant or become an entrepreneur. Since then, she and four other instructors, who are also company board members, started offering private lessons with an emphasis on people from underserved communities who usually don’t have access to a pool.

The Gullah Swim Academy instructors are Basir Robertson, Ashby’s high school friend and a city of Charleston swim instructor, her brother, Harleston Ashby, and her daughters, Fenix and Sarah Gallashaw. Ashby’s sister Meaghen Ashby-Woods and their father, Vincent Ashby Jr., serve as company board members.

GSA instructors remind prospective customers that a fear of water and a lack of access to swim lessons are among the reasons people of color are more likely to die from drowning than Whites. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Pool Safely program, Black children between the ages of 5 and 19 are 5.5 times more likely to drown in a pool than their White peers. 

To convince water-phobic skeptics, Ashby stresses lessons are in a private no-judgment zone. She counters the reasons why some people, particularly Black people, give to shun the water.

“You don’t want to get in cold water? Our pool is 92 degrees. What about the rain? We are inside a heated tent. What about your hair? We have oversized swim caps that cover locks and braids,” she said. “When we eliminate the excuses, we can convince people it is about changing the mentality of being in the water,” she added.

Children 17 and younger must ask the adult who brought them to swim class for permission to enter the water. Ashby wants the adult to be aware the child is in the pool. Children have drowned with adults nearby because they failed to monitor a child in the water. 

“Drowning is not always about splashing on top of the water,” she explained. “Drowning is silent, and it does not require a lot of noise and action. We want the adults in the water to be aware of the children.”

‘Mr. Roger’s neighborhood’

When Ashby was a toddler, her parents enrolled her in a child development program at Trinity United Methodist Church on Meeting Street. The church was near a pool at the former Christian Family Y on George Street that offered karate, racket ball, swimming and gymnastics lessons. The school also took students on field trips to the nearby fire department and a locksmith shop, Sottile Theatre and the College of Charleston. 

“It was a Mr. Roger’s neighborhood with all these things to stimulate my imagination,” Ashby said, referring to the popular PBS children’s television program. “For me to come up in the 1980s in that environment was a blessing that taught me, a Black girl, how to swim and do gymnastics,” she said. “That was exhilarating and magical.”

When she was a student at Burke High School, a city-sponsored job-training program placed her in a summer job as a lifeguard. Later, she was assigned to the George Street pool where she learned to swim as a child. After graduating from Burke in 1997, Ashby played soccer at Erskine College in Due West for one season, but a shoulder injury she received while in high school sidelined her. In 2005, she graduated from S.C. State University where she was on the soccer team.

The shoulder injury kept her out of competitive swimming for four years, but eventually she returned to teaching swimming and lifeguarding at city pools on the peninsula and West Ashley. During that time, she was asked if she’d do private lessons and soon her client list grew.

During the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control announced that the Covid-19 virus could not live in chlorinated water. That’s when Ashby started offering private lessons in the swimming pool at her apartment complex in Hanahan and other city-owned pools. But it was not convenient and fraught with distraction. Then in April 2021, she and her family decided to invest in a pool and create the Gullah Swim Academy, said Ashby, who lived on Wadmalaw Island until she was 8 when her family moved to the city.

“We had a service, and we knew people needed our service,” she said. “We were certified and had the experience, and we were trained in CPR, first aid, lifeguarding and teaching swim lessons. All those boxes were checked, but we didn’t have a pool to teach when we wanted to do it and not have to deal with the public interrupting the swim lesson.”

As the business grows, Ashby said she hopes to introduce individual and group lessons on the risks posed by any body of water, even a bathtub and snow. 

“We want to teach people to follow the rules and understand changing tides and rip tides,” she said. “We are looking forward to teaching families CPR and first aid. We also want people with pools to be trained in first aid and have an emergency plan. People like to have a pool, but they don’t understand the responsibility that comes with having a pool.”

Ashby’s backyard pool is also a place to relax and entertain her childhood friends and their children. “I now have this pool that brings back those childhood days that we can enjoy that helps to create the next generation of memories for these kids.”

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