It all started with a backyard pool. Sixty-five years later, Clark Gelhaus is still at it — teaching swimming, that is. He has taken that aquatic passion and imparted the fun, not to mention life-saving, skill to several generations of Northern Californians.
His lifelong mission began at his family’s pool in the city of Lafayette, Calif. His parents built one of the first residential pools in the area in 1946. Gelhaus and his two brothers enjoyed playing in their own pool and learning how to maintain it.
In 1949, Gelhaus began teaching swim classes there. But the noise and parking situation began bothering the neighbors, and he moved north to Antioch in 1955. To this day, Clark, 83, and wife Ingrid own and run Solar Swim & Gym.
The “solar” in the name refers to the fact that the five-lane, rectangular pool is solar heated. The facility also has two gym rooms and a fitness trail, with stations where clients can stop for exercises such as pull-ups. But the pool is the big draw, and thousands of youngsters have learned to swim and dive there. Among those benefitting from Clark’s expertise was his nephew, Phil Gelhaus. The 40-year industry veteran and former owner of General Pool & Spa Supply recalls spending time at Uncle Clark’s each summer, learning competitive swimming, among other things.
Clark Gelhaus’ love of the sport comes from a childhood spent in and around water. Besides the family pool, he had a lot of exposure to water and swimming, growing up close to San Francisco Bay. “And when my family went on vacation, it was always by the water,” he said.
So it’s not too surprising to learn that his career goal was to teach PE and coach. He joined the college swim team and took a course in aquatics because, he said, he wanted to learn how to teach competitive swimming. He obtained his teaching credentials, but dropped the idea of coaching at a school to see how far he could go with swimming.
Clearly, his passion — and legacy — is Solar Gym & Swim. He has poured his energy and imagination into that facility, creating some of his own techniques along the way. One tool is the floating log. It’s octagonal in shape, and swim students hang on and kick to develop muscle strength.
Gelhaus also likes to use “progressive teaching,” which he describes as learning in little steps. He starts class reviewing what the students have learned, then they practice what they know and pick up something new. “For instance,” he said, “we might tell them to dive in, swim underwater under two ropes, pick up rings on the pool bottom, then climb out.”
When asked about retirement, Clark Gelhaus deftly steered the conversation elsewhere, talking about the need for better-made public pools. As nephew Phil said later, the family doesn’t expect him to retire. And his longtime clients wouldn’t have it any other way.