Early Birds: 2 Kenai women make swimming a daily deed

Posted: Monday, May 09, 2011

Students come and go, but Joanna Hollier, 86, and Shirley Henley, 87, have been coming back to the Kenai Central High School pool for nearly three decades.

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Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Shirley Henley swims in the pool at Kenai Central High School last month, where she and her friend Joanna Hollier have been a nearly daily presence for decades. Hollier hinted at the seriousness of her workout as she adjusted her gear before getting in the pool. "When you swim with a mask and snorkel, you don't have to talk to people," she said.

They've been part of each other's lives for even longer.

"We've known each other since, oh, '49, when I first came to Alaska," Henley said.

They met because their husbands worked together, Henley said. Then they had kids around the same ages that went to school together, and eventually the kids grew up and the women re-entered the workforce at the same time.

By the 1980s, they were both swimming.

Henley was a familiar face at the school before she started swimming. She taught chemistry and physics there in the 1970s. After she retired from teaching, she had time to check out the pool. Henley said she has used the pool since about 1980.

Hollier started swimming shortly after the Kenai pool opened in 1974.

Around 1982, they started carpooling, Henley said. By 1985, they were going pretty much every day, Hollier said.

Save for a few brief interludes, they haven't missed many days since then.

"The weather's never stopped us," Hollier said.

In the early morning before school has started, it's mostly adults using the pool, Hollier said. She and Henley swim from about 6:30 to 7:30 a.m.

"It's about the same people usually," she said.

John Wensley, a teacher at Mountain View Elementary, is one of those regulars.

"I've been swimming here for 20 years and these ladies are an inspiration to all us old-timers who swim every day," he said.

Hollier said she and Henley have seen a few people come and go.

"Shirley and I have gone through quite a few coaches," she said. But lifeguard William Hubler has been a regular face for a while now, Hollier said. And coach Jennifer Ticknor has helped them out, she said.

For now, there's just one swimmer in the lanes where Henley and Hollier do their laps.

In mid-April, Hollier flew to Seattle to have a shoulder operation. But she'll be back in the pool when she's healed, which could take six months, or even a year or two, she said doctors told her.

"You know I won't stay away from the pool," she told the lifeguard on her last visit for a while.

This isn't the first time one of them has had an injury.

Hollier broke her arm in three places in 1982, and re-injured it years later. Henley has had leg problems since before she became a regular at the Kenai pool.

But injuries haven't stopped them, though they draw the line at going to the pool on the weekends.

"Swim five days a week, that's enough anyway," Hollier said. "Your body needs a rest."

Plus, the Kenai pool is usually closed Saturday and Sunday.

They arrive and leave together each morning, but in the water, Henley and Hollier have their own routines.

"More or less what I do is just work my arm," Hollier said. "She'll do 50 laps."

Henley can churn out her laps without stopping. Mostly, she does the front crawl using a snorkel, so she doesn't even have to lift her head to breathe.

She learned to swim more than 60 years ago, as a child in Alabama. She rode her bike to the pool and paid a quarter for admission.

"I read a book and it told me how to swim and it worked," she said.

Hollier came to swimming a little later in life -- but still well before Kenai Central had a pool.

"I learned to swim in Island Lake," she said. That was in the 1950s, when the Red Cross offered lessons and she wanted her kids to learn. But she didn't think they'd go in the cold water without her. So she hopped in.

"I've always been a water person," she said. "I love the water."

That love stuck with her kids.

Her daughter even gets to count pool time as work time.

"My daughter is a physical therapist in Seattle and she's a pool therapist," Hollier said.

Though they see each other most mornings for their swim, that isn't the only time Henley and Hollier get together.

Until Hollier left for Seattle, they got together most Thursdays with a group of six or seven women that have lived on the Kenai Peninsula since the 1940s.

The women reminisce about the early days on the Peninsula, and the people they knew. Each woman brings a sack lunch from home to make it easier on the host.

Hollier said their lunches are fun and games. The women "yakity, yak," Henley added.

The other pool regulars see them outside the pool, too.

Wensley said Henley came to his school as a public health nurse once. She was a nurse when she came to the Peninsula, and again after she retired from teaching.

He says she walked into the library and said hello. She told him it was strange to see him wearing clothes, Wensley said.

She laughed at the story.

"Oh boy," Henley said. She had probably been there doing tuberculosis tests and vision screenings, she remembered. "Well, people do look different in the pool than when they're dressed up, you know."

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@peninsulaclarion.com.

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