On a late-summer Saturday in 1970s Baltimore County, kids of all ages would sit shoulder to shoulder around the perimeter of a backyard pool, preparing to jump in for a celebratory lap. Their family and friends watched proudly, cheering as they reached the other side. This ceremonial swim, called “closing exercises,” signified the completion of Mr. Thorpe’s infamous Learn to Swim class.
The program, which was started by Marvin Thorpe Sr. in the backyard of his Windsor Mill home in 1972, has been in operation every summer of its nearly-50-year existence. While closing exercises have evolved slightly to accommodate the 400+ students now graduating from the program each summer, not much else has changed. The pool, the methodology, even the instructor’s name, remain the same. When his dad passed away in 2004, Marvin Thorpe II ’85 took over the family business without a second thought. He’d been teaching swimming most of his life anyway; it just made sense to continue his dad’s legacy.
“I can’t remember ever not knowing how to swim,” Marvin considers. “But I can imagine learning with my dad was pretty tough. There were a lot of kids in the neighborhood that were my age and he would just teach them too. That’s how the program started—with the neighborhood kids. Then, by word of mouth, it just grew and grew every summer.”
By nine years old, Marvin was spending his summers waist-deep in the pool alongside his dad, teaching swimming from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and observing the adult lessons in the evenings. Unpaid and starved of a summer vacation, he did so grudgingly, but that didn’t keep him from mastering his dad’s methods.
“When I was in my late-20s, there was this little boy who was giving me a rough go,” Marvin recalls. “I wasn’t looking for my dad to help me because I knew I could do it, but I had to work a little harder to get the desired results from him. My dad was watching, and after it was all said and done and I got the kid to do it, my dad said to me, ‘You got it!’ Looking back, it feels like he was giving me the green light to go forward when he wasn’t there. I think he was passing the torch to me in a way. He knew he was leaving the program in good hands. I didn’t quite get it then, but I get it now.”
So, after his dad passed away and the phone kept ringing, Marvin decided he would do what he had always done: teach swimming. The program has grown tremendously since Marvin took over. Swim lessons run from the beginning of June to the end of August, with additional off-season lessons when Marvin is able to rent time at an indoor facility. In 2014, Marvin started a swim team for his students who wanted to keep swimming at a competitive level. He added an adult team in 2017.
In this day and age, it is exceedingly rare to grow a business almost solely by word of mouth, but with the reputation Marvin and his father built for their program, Learn to Swim requires very little advertising. In some cases, the program has seen three generations of swimmers in a family.
Local politicians like Kurt Schmoke, Marilyn Mosby, and TJ Smith have sent their children to the Thorpes. A few fellow Mount alumni also graduated from Learn to Swim, including Bernard West ’87. Even former Baltimore Raven Terrell Suggs signed his kids up for lessons, and Olympic athlete Giles Smith began his swimming career in the little backyard pool.
However, the students that stick out most in Marvin’s mind are the adults. Teaching adults brings about unique challenges, as many are weighed down by decades of fear. Many of Marvin’s adult students have had near-drowning experiences. Understanding this, he tries to be attentive to each student’s starting point and offers small, digestible instructions to get them comfortable in the pool. His most important piece of advice: do it afraid.
“I tell them to do it afraid, whatever it might be,” he says. “People come into the class with 30 or 50 years of fear. It’s impossible for you to erase that in two weeks. You have to tell them to do it afraid because fear has a way of freezing you and then you don’t do anything.”
While it is undoubtedly rewarding for Marvin to watch students who were trembling before getting into the water learn to swim, his motivation for teaching is much simpler than that. According to USA Swimming, nearly 65% of African Americans have no or low ability to swim, and almost 50% of all adults in America cannot swim. “I want people to know how to swim because if you need to know how to swim and you can’t, your life is on the line,” Marvin explains. “It’s a survival skill. I just like to teach people how to swim, and I’m grateful to God that I’m good at it.”
Sometimes, Marvin will catch himself looking down at the pool his father built—48 years, more than 15,000 students, and two competitive swim teams later—thinking, ‘Dad, do you see this?’ “I think he would be proud of what he started,” Marvin says, smiling.