One Oaklander Reflects on His Journey to Becoming A West Oakland Swim Instructor

A Black man holds his infant son in the water with a blue pool noodle tied safely around the baby to keep him afloat
Leon Sykes with his son about six years ago in a swim class.

My journey to being a swim instructor was perhaps unexpected. When I was five, my parents put me in swim classes at Live Oak pool in Oakland. But I first joined a swim team around the age of 8 or 9. The first team I swam for was Oakland’s Fremont Pool Tigersharks. My first swim coach was Harith Aleem. This guy got this chubby 9 year-old to believe he could be a swimmer and swim competitively. 

My mom put me in swim classes because my elementary school would take us on field trips to Robert’s Park’s swimming pool. During these swim sessions, I’d have all the other kids holding on to the wall of the pool and kicking from the shallow to the middle of the pool, as if I was a swim instructor. My love for the water pushed my mom to want me to learn how to swim and be safe in the water. My mom didn’t know how to swim, and she didn’t want her children to have the same experiences. 

I grew up in a part of Oakland that doesn’t get talked about often. Being Black in Oakland, it seems like you’re either from North Oakland, West Oakland, or East Oakland. I grew up by the Rose Garden and still live here; Lake Merritt is a 10 minute walk from my apartment. I call it Deep East Piedmont due to it being three blocks from Piedmont but also being in an area without a “turf.” It’s something I “bang” as a satirical nod to growing up in what is considered a suburban area of Oakland. 

Even though I grew up by the Lake, I spent a lot of time in my early adulthood in West Oakland. From the age of 19 to 33, life revolved around “The West.” It all started at DeFremery Pool.

In March 2004, less than a year after I graduated high school, I moved back home after a failed attempt at living on my own. My freshman year in college wasn’t going as planned. The workforce seemed more fitting for me. I was broke! I had worked part-time as a youth peer teacher at YR Media (known as Youth Radio back then), but it was a part-time job at a nonprofit. While it was a rewarding experience, the bills were not getting paid.

As a kid, I swam on swim teams for the City of Oakland’s recreation competitive league. However, at the age of 19, I hadn’t touched the water in over seven years. A friend of mine, Brandon Robinson (also known as Beejus, a rapper, podcaster, photographer, and DJ) was working as a lifeguard for the City of Oakland and told me the city was paying $12 an hour, which was almost twice as much as I was making.  

I was hired as a year-round part-time lifeguard, and later that summer, I was added to DeFremery Pool’s staff roster. I was hella excited to be there because my best friend’s older brother Ross Robinson (also known as DJ Aebl Dee) was the assistant manager and someone I’ve known since I was eight years-old. Who would have thought June 2004 would forever shape and mold my adult life. 

A colorful mural that says West Oakland and DeFremery Pool
DeFremery Pool in West Oakland. Photo courtesy of Leon Sykes.

As a “rookie” with the city, the tradition was for the newbies to teach swim lessons. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing when I first started. But, I was making more money than before and I had a connection with the young people I was working with. DeFremery was more than just a place I worked at—the community, the staff—they created a family for us. We wanted to be there. We wanted to improve and become better teachers and lifeguards. I would watch the more experienced instructors and apply their techniques to my teaching. It took me about two years or so to become a confident teacher. I started falling in love with it. 

Around 2006, a new supervisor came in named Jim Wheeler. Jim was a no b.s. water guru. When Jim first met me, he thought I was an arrogant young punk. But he saw something in me. He and my manager at the time (who has gone on to be a mentor to me in and out of the pools). James Boatner, my manager at DeFremery, and Jim, decided it was time for me to become a Junior Lifeguard coach. Junior Guard coaches work with youth 11-15 to learn the basics of lifeguarding and prepare them to become a lifeguard when they’re old enough to become certified. I had a group of seven or eight teens and this was what I call my defining moment. 

I saw them go from being unable to perform a water rescue technique to being in-city champions in the city’s Junior Guard game championships. 

four colorful statues of swimmers at the top, trophies at a swim rec center
Oakland Parks and Recreation (OPR) City-wide Junior Guard Championship trophies won by DeFremery Pool.

From 2004-2018, I worked at the pool. Over these years, I’ve helped teach hundreds of children and adults how to swim. Being in a predominantly Black neighborhood like West Oakland, it was extremely important to recruit as many families as possible. Historically, Black folks haven’t had the access to pools due to racist policies in the country. A 2008 NPR piece citing USA Swimming shows 58% of Black children couldn’t swim. A large reason for this happening has revolved around racist practices keeping us from being in pools. Once desegregation happened and people of all races were given access, families of color still weren’t learning in large numbers compared to their white counterparts. 

Being a Black man working at a pool has been extremely important, to make sure these young children who looked like me knew they can learn how to swim. It’s one of my highest priorities. 

The amount of children of color that drown a year is incredibly high: according to Diversity In Aquatics, “African American youth are more likely to drown in public pools, (47%) when compared with White non-Hispanic (33%) and Hispanic/Latinx populations (12%).” 

An aquamarine colored pool while divers in mid air jump into their swim lanes for a swim meet
Swim meet circa 2015 at DeFremery Pool in West Oakland.

These numbers are startling and I am doing what I can to try to lower it. Of course, I teach kids of all backgrounds, but at DeFremery, the majority of people learning to swim are minorities.

With statistics that are this alarming, I’m often reminded how lucky we are that so many of our staff at DeFremery and the City of Oakland were Black men and women, including Harith (my first coach), James (my mentor), and many more. For me, James Hardy was also a huge influence. He dedicated over 40 years of his life to aquatics and being a role model to children of color in Oakland as swimmers and working as lifeguards. (James Hardy passed away in 2019). 

Over the years, we watched toddlers become elementary school-aged children, then saw them off to college. We were raising children here. We were building relationships with parents. It wasn’t something that lasted for 10 weeks in the summer, it became every month, all year long. We went from just working at a pool to being the father, uncle, brother, mentor figures to many young people and even to coworkers. I learned to practice what I preached. I made sure I met the people who swam here—not just swim lessons. I was talking to lap swimmers, public swim-goers, even people who are just passing by. I was here from 8am-9pm everyday.

In last four years, I’ve ventured into the private workforce, working at a tech company, but then I found my other love—teaching. I’ve been teaching at Fremont High since April 2020, and I love it. 

Earlier this summer, I was talking to one of my staff members who was a swimmer when I left and he said, “You were here so much after you left, we wondered, ‘Doesn’t Leon have a new job?’”. He was right—I missed my friends and family of the Westside team and the general public. 

A lot of people have asked why I came back. Working in the tech world was fun but it didn’t give me this—it didn’t give me the sense that we were doing something right. 

I missed home, I missed the community, I missed West Oakland. Working in the tech world was great with catered breakfast, lunch, and options to work remotely from home. I clocked in, did work, clocked out and headed home. But there was something missing, something that left me feeling empty inside still, the lack of community interaction. Sometimes I’d park my car at West Oakland BART to head to my tech job in the City just so I could stop by DeFremery on my way home. 

a photo collage of swimmers on the left and a bright yellow large thank you card on the right
A thank you note from DeFremery Pool’s Westside Sea Dragon swim team and Junior Guard participants.

Teaching children to swim helped me fall in love with teaching. I already had experience working at YR Media working with youth and being a swim instructor helped me become even more confident in teaching. I believed in myself more. I use some of those skills now. Teaching isn’t just about what you’re learning on that sheet of paper. There’s a relationship, a bond you need to build with your students, being in that water and asking children to trust me with their life requires that kind of bond. My teaching style is largely built around motivation—something I learned as a swim instructor. I’ve been teaching as a CTE teacher in the Media Academy at Fremont High since 2020.

I have a six year old son now. In 2019, I enrolled him in Parent/Child lessons at DeFremery pool. This swimming class teaches parents with children 6 months to three years-old how to get their children comfortable in the water and prepare for swim lessons when the child is old enough to be in the water by themselves with an instructor. 

I planned to return the next summer and enroll my son into preschool classes. However, COVID decided to be a hater and nixed those plans. In 2021 when “outside” was slowly re-opening, I tried to sign back up for lessons; however everything was on a limited schedule. 

After two years of zero-to-limited-capacity due to the pandemic, this summer the city was going to open back up to a full schedule. I knew I needed to be involved, my son needed swim lessons, and I wanted to help bring back programs to the greatness I know they can be. So I got recertified as a lifeguard and reapplied to return to the city. 

I’m a manager now, and I’m not in the water as much as I used to be. But with a staff shortage, I’ve been in the water every session this summer. I haven’t taught classes in at least six years, and I got the same rush of energy that I had back then. 

Over the years, I’ve seen people I’ve taught years ago and they thank me for teaching them and helping them fall in love with swimming. It feels good knowing you made an impact on their lives. 

This is what I love about being here—the families are happy about the experience we give here and want to come back for more, just as I did. 

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Black Voices in the Town’ is funded by The African American Response Circle Fund. In 2020, the Brotherhood of Elders Network in partnership with the East Bay Community Foundation established the fund in response to the impact of COVID-19 as a public health crisis for African Americans who live, work, and worship in Alameda County.

Author Profile
Leon Sykes

Leon Sykes is an Oakland educator and swim instructor. Leon’s favorite pools in Oakland are DeFremery and, when it’s open, the pool at McClymonds High School. Twitter: @DNas and Instagram: @DNastee

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