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A Lifelong Vocation
The Bartosavages mourned their son deeply, yet carried on in their own ways. In the wake of the accident, Elaine dedicated the following decades to toddler water safety, while Chuck retreated to silence on the subject of his son’s death. In each location they were stationed, she taught swimming lessons with increasing frequency. Due to children’s poor enunciation, she became known as “Ms. B.” Chuck supported her fully in her endeavors.
In Japan, Elaine coached her first swim team, the Alphabets, so named because participants lived “from Atsugi to Zama” in the Kanagawa Prefecture. She took on this role with reluctance, but soon discovered she had a gift for coaching. Chuck became the team’s manager and, although a two-time Vietnam veteran and decorated major, was simply known as “Ms. B’s husband.”
They were transferred to Fort Belvoir, Va., in 1970. There, Elaine started a Toddler Drown-Proofing Program as she coached the Belvoir Beavers. A 1972 article in The Castle, Fort Belvoir’s newspaper, states, “Having lost her five-year-old son by drowning, she’s willing to work six hours a day, five days a week (not including meets on Saturday and Sunday) to assure that every Belvoir youngster who comes out [has] a chance to learn to swim.”
The Bartosavages moved permanently to Woodbridge in 1976, in the home Elaine still occupies. The day after closing on their property, Elaine contracted a local company to install an in-ground swimming pool in the backyard. She continued to teach drown-proofing classes and individual stroke lessons at several local pools and at her home.
She recounts three occasions in which a child survived near-fatal incidents due to safety practices she imparted. Although she admits that it would take a qualified psychiatrist to break her compulsive need to volunteer, she says, in a quivering voice, “Without swimming, I would be lost. It gives me focus. It’s my reason for living.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the leading cause of injury death in the United States for children younger than five years. In a single week, approximately 21 toddlers will succumb to a drowning accident in this country.
To this day, more than 300 infants and toddlers have graduated from Elaine’s Toddler Drown-Proofing Program and she estimates that between 8,000 and 10,000 swimmers have had at least one lesson with her.
Cowboys, Cats, and Confrontation
The Bartosavage home is easily spotted from afar. Dallas Cowboys pennants and signs adorn its front. Her swimming pool even sported a rather large Cowboys star before it was repainted a few years ago. The Dallas team is also a reminder of Chuck, an avid fan, who passed away during the summer of 1990. Elaine’s home is a shrine to her family, her favorite football team, her animals, and her devotion to swimming safety.
The past year has been particularly trying for Elaine. She is caring for her eldest sister, Eleanor, 90, who is recovering from a broken hip and infection. Elaine, too, has had numerous health concerns, including malignant skin cancer and a broken back and hip. Through pain and illness, she refuses to cancel her classes, often betraying the reality of advancing age.
Moreover, neighbors have complained to local authorities that her cats trespass on their property. A self-described “cat lady,” Elaine has been breeding short-haired exotics since 1973. She even presented a “black smoke” exotic named Bette Davis Eyes at the 1989 International Cat Show at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, winning the “Best Short-Haired Kitten” award for the Southeast region.
County inspectors recently knocked on her door asking to see her swimming pool permit, which is required of home-based swim instructors. Although she paid her annual dues, she had misplaced her permit. Elaine has dealt with so many authorities that her spit-fire repartee has been honed to cooperative agreement, even when faced with the possibility of charges she finds unjust. “I’ve always had a big mouth,” she says with a knowing smile.
Elaine’s attitude when confronted with life’s challenges mirrors her swimming philosophy: “In order to be a good swimmer, you have to be a good thinker. Each race is like a game of chess, you have to judge your opponents,” she muses.
An Unsung Champion
During the hours that I talked with Elaine, we leafed through old family albums full of black-and-white photographs of the Hansens. My son was swimming laps while my six-year-old daughter bobbed in and out of the water in an undulating motion reminiscent of a distracted mermaid. Even as she enumerated her siblings in the worn photos, her coach’s eye was trained on my son. “Tighten that streamline,” she said, as one used to the inconsistent nature of twelve-year-olds.
My family’s relationship with Elaine has grown over the years. Elaine and I have had our disagreements regarding the children, yet she has become a fixture in the landscape of their childhood. When she was younger, my daughter would affectionately call her “Ms. Bumblebee.”
Blair, Elaine’s 51-year-old son, came out of the house to join us in our jog down memory lane. He quickly fetched an album of yellowed newspaper clippings from his own house, allowing me to photograph his only surviving copy of a 1986 Washington Post Magazine and the two-page spread devoted to his mother. In the photo accompanying the article, Elaine is happily surrounded by 26 cats.
Although magazine and newspaper articles have been written about her, the endless hours she devoted to her life’s work have been largely overlooked. There are no commemorative plaques in the Bartosavage home, no recognition of the special service she provided for five decades to the various communities to which she belonged. Likewise, not many people know that she taught seven children with Down syndrome to swim so well, they were able to join local swim teams.
Some may argue that she receives remuneration for her lessons, yet this stipend is not enough to cover the various expenses associated with pool maintenance and the enormous heating bills she pays in the winter to keep water temperatures at a comfortable level. A bubble-shaped tent placed over her pool enables her to teach during colder months. “I do it for the kids,” she said when asked why she kept teaching year-round. “And when I’m not near water, I get severely depressed,” she added.
I noticed that Blair looks strikingly like the photos of his father. While we sat by the pool, he told stories of his mother coaching swim teams and of children who learned to swim with her. When I asked him to define what swimming meant to Elaine, he responded with the quick assurance of someone who knows, “Life.” That word was aptly chosen. In her own tenacious way, Elaine Hansen Bartosavage has given that very opportunity to so many children.
[Author’s addendum: Elaine’s eldest sister, Mrs. Eleanor Hansen Ryan, 90, who resided with her sister, passed away on the afternoon of Aug. 7.]
Kate Winslet, in the Nancy Meyers film The Holiday, famously says before slamming a door in her former flame’s face, “I don't know, but I think what I've got is something slightly resembling...gumption!” Like Winslet’s character Iris, Eleanor Ryan had gumption in spades.
Eleanor loved to sit by the far end of the pool, quietly smoking her cigarettes while following children’s progress across the water. She wore a collection of fishermen’s hats to protect a shock of thick white hair, her favorite embroidered with the words, “I Survived Ms. B!”
Although the hat was meant as a joke, Eleanor truly was a survivor: twenty or so years ago of breast cancer and more recently of other medical conditions—miraculously, none related to her smoking habit. She would often say in jest, “I only have one good eye and one breast, what else do I have to lose?”
She was also the yang to Ms. B’s yin, winking at children surreptitiously and whispering, “Well, I think you did a great job!” after they received a particularly strong critique of their swimming strokes. Regardless of how poorly some children did, she could be heard telling Elaine just what she thought of her attitude.
Sharp as a tack, Eleanor told me stories of Old New York in the 1930s and of her famous escapades to Manhattan while pulling younger siblings in a wagon. The first part of this biography was colored by Eleanor’s numerous anecdotes and her recollections of Elaine as a young maverick. She once confided, “Elaine thinks she’s so smart. She is smart, but so stubborn!”
Eleanor Hansen Ryan will be sorely missed by all those who knew her.