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Photos contributed by Kassy Clifford / Kassy Clifford helps a young student get comfortable in the water.

Swim to Live owner Kassy Clifford's swimming classes aren't about playing in the water. They're about survival.

Drowning is the leading cause of unintentional death for children ages 1-4, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, and that statistic became all too real for Clifford when one of her 2-year-old daughter's playmates drowned in his backyard pool.

The tragedy led Clifford to start teaching swimming to family and friends' children 25 years ago, and her business grew from there.

"There weren't many programs out there for kids that were intensive, that were going to teach the kids how to survive," Clifford said.

She recently moved from California to Rossville, where she teaches mostly young children at her backyard pool. She specializes in teaching special needs children, and has extensive experience doing so in her business and with her oldest daughter, who is on the autism spectrum.

Clifford recommends children learn to swim at age 3 or 4, once they are able to walk and more able-bodied than younger children, but will teach children as young as 1.

All classes are taught one-on-one by Clifford in a two-week session format, consisting of 20-minute lessons three times a week for two consecutive weeks.

"I teach a lot of kids who have been through many different programs, and I think the biggest difference is my approach, which is very aggressive and intensive but very gentle at the same time," Clifford said, on what sets her program apart from others.

Kids who don't naturally like the water will often scream and refuse to obey instructors or get their hair wet, and they end up leaving a program without learning any skills. And the older a child gets, the more fearful they become and those reactions become even more intense.

"What I've learned over 25 years is every child cries, every child's scared," Clifford said. "It doesn't get easier; it only gets harder."

She doesn't give kids an option — in the first 20 seconds of a lesson, they go under water. They get their hair wet and they blow bubbles.

"We push forward, and they end up loving it," said Clifford, adding that she realizes the first lesson can be difficult for parents.

She is very clear with parents that they can expect their child to gag, scream, and even throw up or say Clifford is hurting them.

"That's why the parents in my program aren't even invited to watch until their child gets over that, which usually takes about three lessons," she said.

By the end of the session, the goal is to have the child be able to flip over in the water, flip back over and move their arms and legs to get across the pool. Some kids accomplish this by the end of the first week, while others may require a few extra lessons after the conclusion of the two-week session, she said.

She also offers half-hour, individually priced lessons for older children who can swim but want to fine-tune their skills, she said.

For more information or to sign up for lessons, call 916-813-0444 or visit swimtolive.com.

Email Emily Crisman at ecrisman@timesfreepress.com

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