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Maria Tinnin’s outstretched limbs bob in the deep end of the second lane of the Aqua Pros Swim School pool in Clairemont. Her eyes are closed, her curly hair tucked into a red bejeweled swim cap.
The corners of her mouth, upturned just slightly, betray her momentary bliss: For a few seconds, in 91-degree water, Tinnin floats without pain.
She doesn’t linger long. Tinnin whisks her legs underneath her and swims the pool’s length, freestyle, arriving at the end of the lane just about 3 p.m. to meet Cian Wheeler, 7 years old, and Naya Gregory, 6, who wait and wiggle on the pool’s edge.
For all some of her young underwater pupils know, “Miss Maria” lives in the pool.
She wouldn’t mind if that were true.
Tinnin suffers arthritis pain that agitates nearly her entire body, from feet to knees to hips to back to arms to hands. During her early 30s, a doctor said she had the bones of a 70-year-old or a professional athlete. She began walking with a cane a few years later.
Now, at age 55, the pool is about the only place she feels comfort. It’s also about the only place she doesn’t feel crippled. It’s easier for her to swim than walk.
“I move around in the water like everybody else,” she says, “whereas on land, I can’t.”
But she’ll face those limits later. For now, in the pool and with these kids, Tinnin beams.
Wheeler and Gregory jump in and hug their teacher. First up, Tinnin coaches them on the butterfly stroke.
“Legs together, legs together, like a mermaid tail,” she calls out. Their arms swing around like helicopter blades. “Tummies up, feet up.”
Tinnin dips her head underwater to watch through her goggles at their strokes. “Good!” she yells as they pop their heads up for air.
This pool is Miss Maria’s world. Here, she sings, coaches, watches, corrects, hugs and laughs — uttering squeals of delight at her own jokes and at the progress of her students. She swims with them, staying in the pool for eight straight classes in four hours.
Miss Maria is a sought-after teacher.
A slot in her class impels some parents to rearrange their kids’ other extracurricular commitments. For eight-and-a-half years, she’s been teaching classes, three students at a time, to babies and toddlers and big kids and bigger kids.
In her amphibious life, Tinnin prefers the aquatic. Out of the pool, Tinnin hobbles with a cane. A broken elevator in her condo complex means she spends a long weekend by herself at home, rather than deal with three flights of stairs or with a long walk to the other end of the complex to leave. When she locks up and drives away from the pool, her nights are often filled with grimace-inducing pain.
Tinnin volunteers her teaching time in exchange for time in the pool whenever she needs it. Where some arthritis patients pay monthly dues to use a heated indoor pool or to go to physical therapy, Tinnin finds that therapy here. Mind over matter, she says, with none of the flippancy that makes the cliché tired. Why not be here, teaching, instead of wallowing?
Her positivity has strikingly strong roots. She squeezes out every last drop of energy in these few afternoon hours, a few days a week.
And the swim school seems to get the best deal, though Tinnin would quibble with that equation. She doesn’t know how much the other teachers make, has never thought to ask, she says. To her, it’s worth a couple of four-hour swim lesson shifts a week to be able to be in the warm water. And to be around the kids.
Tinnin always thought she’d be a mother, but even before her arthritis pain, doctors discovered and removed a tumor that made that impossible. Now, to watch her kiss the foreheads of ponytailed 8-year-old girls and let the skinny arms of a 3-year-old boy wrap tightly around her neck in a piggyback is to see Tinnin realize her maternal instincts, if only for 30 minutes at a time.
Though she always loved to swim, she started teaching eight-and-a-half years ago. For work, Tinnin split her time as a server in an airline’s elite club at the airport and a waitress at Dick’s Last Resort. When 9/11 hit, she lost her job at the airline. Now, she ekes out a modest living on disability payments, budgeting creatively with things like this bartering system.
Not to mention indoor, heated pools are few in San Diego.
Tinnin is striking. She’s simultaneously girly and athletic. Under sweats and a hooded sweatshirt, she wears a red bathing suit that she’s had “AQUA PROS” embroidered on and a puka shell necklace. She wields a floral print cane. Her toes are painted sparkly purple. Every year, Tinnin reigns as the Mardi Gras queen in the Gaslamp Quarter’s parade.
In Tinnin’s second class of the afternoon, 7-year-old Katie Frey jumps into the pool. Wearing a tie-dyed swimsuit, Frey splashes and kicks and swims the length of the pool with her classmate. Both take a few minutes to get into proper form, and Tinnin admonishes them. “Come on, Kyle!” she says. “Go! Go! Go! Go! Straight legs!”
At the end of the lane, the two stop. Tinnin directs them to dive under the water and touch the bottom of the pool. One of the students dives about halfway down and comes up with a gasp.
Tinnin looks him in the eye. She cups his chin in her hand. Try again, she tells him.
“And always remember I’m with you,” she says. “I’m watching you the whole time.”
He dives down again, and this time touches the bottom.
Soon it’s time for the third group of kids, the 4:00 class. And there’s three more kids at 4:30, when she takes a poll to determine what to do next.
“Let’s take a vote: backstroke or fins?” she asks.
“Fins!” shouts a girl in a pink swim cap.
“Fins!” echoes a ponytailed girl in an orange and pink swimsuit.
“Fins!” chimes in a boy in red swim trunks.
Fins it is. Tinnin works on four main strokes with her students — backstroke, freestyle, butterfly and breaststroke. She teaches them to watch for hazards underwater, to breathe deep and dive smoothly.
Before her next class, Tinnin hops over to the teacher station and takes a painkiller. More students come at 5, 5:30, 6 and 6:30.
For each class, Tinnin cheers and whoops and hollers. She doesn’t seem to flag — she swims with the kids instead of just watching them. She does pull-ups on the handrails and treads water in spare moments. Swimming always figured in Tinnin’s fitness regime, but when her arthritis started getting really bad, it was the only thing she could do for aerobic exercise.
And at the end of the day, Tinnan takes a minute to dip her head under the water once more, before hoisting herself out and limping over to her towel.
“I’ve often said I wish I could live in the pool,” she says. “I take my sweet time getting out.”