Learning how to swim can be pretty scary at first.

“Some of them won't even get into the water on the first day,” Lisa Marie Tubbs said.

When Daniel Perry, 15, first started classes at Starfish Swim School at the Hamilton YMCA, he wouldn't go near the water.

“It takes time, building trust, you have to make sure you don't accelerate their fear,” Bonny List said.

Three years later, and this is Daniel today. Developmental disabilities make it hard for him to communicate, but once in the water you don't need words to describe his excitement.

“You have to find modifications, you have to find what makes them tick. You have to find ways to differentiate the instruction. It's a learning experience,” List said.

List developed Starfish Swim School four years ago to help kids like Daniel.

Sarah Simpkins takes classes with her sister Hannah. For Sarah, it's more than learning to swim. It's learning how to conquer whatever life throws at her.

“It's taught me that, no matter your condition, you can learn something new. No matter if you're different,” Sarah said.

Sarah and Hannah's mom says the classes have helped both girls develop a bond and have more confidence outside of the pool.

“It's like night and day from when they started. They talk more with each other. They talk more with other people,” Lisa Simpkins said.

The truth is, the hardest part for List is knowing when to let go and allow the current to carry her students through.

“We have to step back as coaches, and that's hard for me to do because I want to make sure they don't slip or fall,” List said.

These lessons are much more than learning how to swim. They're about overcoming the odds.

List takes a group of swimmers to the Special Olympics every year. She hopes to expand her program next year and include a week long summer camp.

For more information, e-mail Bonny List at