The ocean swimmer: Heather Jo Wilson

VERO BEACH — It’s 9:30 a.m. on a summer morning and Heather Jo Wilson stands on the boardwalk at Jaycee Beach, surveying the water.

It’s translucent blue and as flat as your bathtub. Before leaving home this morning, Wilson checked conditions on The ocean looks exactly as she’d imagined. But Wilson’s discerning eye notices something the amateur could easily miss: baby rip currents near the shore.

“See those little brown swirls breaking in sets?” She points.

They are as hard to see as a bunch of contact lenses floating in the ocean. These small circles turn and disappear into sea foam when they hit the beach.

“That’s how rip currents start up,” Wilson says. “We’ve got a north wind today. That means the water will be cooler than it was yesterday.”

But the baby rip currents pose no problem and Wilson and her newest student wade out for day two of open-water swimming lessons. It is Wilson’s specialty, and it is what her students come to her to learn.

Heather Jo Wilson’s love affair with Mother Ocean started at 11 when she and her family moved to Stuart from Greenwich, Conn., 40 years ago.

“I got in the water and I never got out,” Wilson says. “My interests were swimming, surfing and free diving.”

Certified as a “Water Safety and Swimming Instructor” in 1990, while living in Japan, Wilson ran the entire swimming program at Yokota Air Force Base for two years.

For the past 20 years, Wilson has taught hundreds of students, from infants 6 months old to cancer patients in their 60s. She has worked at YMCAs around the country including the first YWCA in Honolulu, and at a number of swim schools too.

Her move here three years ago following 12 years in Oahu may have changed her time zone, but not two of her greatest loves: surfing and swimming in the ocean. She does both here regularly, swimming year-round.

Today as a private swim instructor, Wilson not only meets her students at swimming pools all over Vero, she meets them at the beach.

The first thing she does is check in with the lifeguards in their tower.

“For them, my head is just a tiny dot out there,” says Wilson. “I want them to be looking for it.”

Plus, one of the lifeguards is Wilson’s fiancé, Chris Bottger.

Wilson currently works with a half-dozen students who come to her for lots of reasons. The big three are a fear of sharks, a concern for visibility and a worry about rough water.

Cathy Westbrook is a perfect example of such a student. Westbrook, a 38-yearold entomologist who moved to Vero’s beachside from Maryland in 2006, loves living on the beach. A lifelong swimmer who trains regularly at Leisure Square’s Structured Swim Program, Westbrook needed to expand her comfort level.

“Some friends pushed me into doing a triathlon,” she says.

The problem was the ocean. “Let’s just say I saw the movie ‘Jaws’ too many times,” says Westbrook.

She has been swimming with Wilson for the past year and has made big improvements, but she’s not exactly overconfident.

“I’m happiest with Heather Jo on my left side and her fiancé on my right side, paddling on his longboard,” she says.

Clumps of seaweed and murky water have forced Westbrook to curtail an otherwise good swim, and she’s no fan of big waves. But there are things about open swimming that she loves.

“I get to see sea creatures like this huge puffer fish in front of the Spires with a diameter of a foot and a half,” says Westbrook.

Near the pier up toward the CVS, she and Wilson once saw a ray. “And we see turtles all the time.”

Westbrook completed a 12.5-mile relay swim around Key West on June 26. “I was on a team of three,” she says.

With her two teammates, Wilson and Luci Burke, Westbrook swam 4.25 miles. The women placed eighth out of 12 three-man teams entered.

“I would have never thought I could accomplish the Key West swim on a relay team. Heather Jo is so encouraging and supportive,” says Westbrook.

Westbrook and Wilson continue their Sunday morning swims off Jaycee Beach and now Wilson is teaching Westbrook’s 5-year-old daughter to swim as well.

Like Westbrook, Wilson also trains at Leisure Square, swimming 3,000 yards twice a week. That’s where she met Gene Greenberg two years ago.

Greenberg coaches the Structured Workout Program and says 60 percent of the swimmers are triathletes. The other 40 percent are fitness swimmers.

The program is similar to the U.S. Masters Swim Program but the two are not identical.

“We are not involved with swim meets,” says Greenberg. “So we aren’t affiliated with the U.S. Masters who hold them regularly. But we train in the same way.”

Over the years, he has completed more than 15 long-distance ocean races including the Key West swim four times, a five-mile race in St. Croix, and a five-kilometer swim in Bonaire in the Netherlands Antilles.

Age 74, Greenberg grew up an avid basketball and tennis player. When repeated knee injuries threatened to bench him for good, Greenberg turned to swimming.

Today, he is a passionate advocate for lifelong swimming. In fact, he has written a book on the subject, “Swimming for Life.”

In the introduction, “The Warm-Up,” Greenberg writes that swimming has “the potential of dramatically altering the status of both your health and your outlook on life.”

When properly done, swimming will “improve your aerobic capacity, strengthen muscles, promote fluid motion of your joints and thereby probably lengthen your life…”

So how does swimming in the ocean compare with the pool?

“There has to be something said for the great mental benefit you get from experiencing the beauty of the ocean and beaches,” says Greenberg. But he emphasizes that pool swimming is necessary for successful open swimming.

“Pool workouts develop your technique and that’s difficult to do in the ocean,” he says, adding, “You need a coach and pool. Otherwise you’ll get murdered out there.”

Granting that pool workouts are essential, it’s still ironic that for many local athletes, swimming happens exclusively in a pool, even though the ocean is there 24/7.

Such is not the case with Wilson.

“Some people call me the ocean swimmer or the crazy swimmer,” she says.

Wilson loves the aesthetics of the ocean compared to a swimming pool.

“There are no boundaries between the sand and the water. I can look out and see that horizon,” she says. “You can really watch people on the beach too.”

And there’s that unparalleled connection with the natural world.

“If the clarity is good, you can see the reef and larger fish, like stingrays and nurse sharks. Friendly turtles are everywhere.”

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