José Bedoya: From Colombia to Connecticut
When East Haven resident José Bedoya was teaching a five year-old girl how to swim in his native Colombia more than a decade ago, he recalls with crystal clarity how edgy the girl's parents were during her first instruction class.
"I asked the parents why they were so nervous and they never answered. Then one day they took me aside and began crying," José says.
The parents admitted that three years earlier their son drowned in shallow water and that's why they wanted their daughter to learn to swim.
Learning to swim is of such vital importance to José that he's been teaching children-and adults-to swim since he was 17 and that was 25 years ago, while he was still living in South America.
José would have remained in Colombia had he not been forced to emigrate after the economy there took a swan dive.
"The economy was much worse than what's happening now in the United States," José explains. "I coached at different pools, but they closed because of the economy."
When his wife Eliana was laid off from her job at a computer company, the Bedoyas decided it was time to pack up and head north.
"We wanted a better life," José says.
His first job in Manhattan lasted only three months and ended when winter set in. The Bedoyas wouldn't be stuck out in the cold, however, and Eliana called a man with whom they'd become friends during their flight to the U.S.-a man who'd offered José work in Connecticut. Thankfully, that job offer was still open and José began earning a living as a painter and tile installer.
Two years later, just after the Bedoyas' first daughter was born, José was looking through a newspaper when he saw help wanted advertisement for a lifeguard position in East Haven.
"I thought this may be my opportunity," he says.
Setting up an interview was a little like swimming upstream, however, and it was on José's fourth attempt to apply for the job when he met with unexpected success.
"Two weeks later I got the job," José says.
Now, a decade later, José still loves his work, his students, and he has immense appreciation for his bosses who've supported him 100 percent since his first day on the job.
Besides his lifeguard work, José's also teaching swimming instruction, water aerobics, and he plays underwater rugby with 12 to 15 other people; it's a game he was first introduced to 17 years ago in Colombia.
In José's youth, he participated in swimming competitions in Colombia, making it close to the nationals, but he didn't excel as he would have liked.
"I started too old-when I was 12," José admits, adding, "You should start when you're five years old if you want to get very good."
José is making up for that lost opportunity with his own children, however, and his 10 year-old daughter Laura is ranked in the top four among swimmers in her class in Connecticut; she's the only Latina to place that high. Following close behind are José's other daughters, Daniela, 7, and Isabella, 5, who are swimmers, too.
When it comes to the challenge of teaching new swimmers-who are both frightened and unsure-José imparts the same advice that he's practiced in his own life.
"Everything is in you. You have to make it [happen]," José says, adding, "And practice makes perfect. When a kid I'm teaching says, 'I'll try,' I say, 'I don't want you to try, I want you to do it.'"
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