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Exploring Life & Business with Katie Cleary of PhD Swim School

Today we’d like to introduce you to Katie Cleary.

Katie, we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
As a graduate student in neurobiology, I had a dream to combine my love of teaching swimming with the belief that there is a wonderful scientific story behind everything we do. Teaching swimming was my first job as a teenager, and throughout my education it was an important outlet for what I’ve always felt were my true passions: Swimming, teaching, and working with children. Little by little, I made the decision to make my true passion my job, and I started teaching swimming full time by renting out local pools. The demand for lessons grew far beyond what one person was capable of offering, so I hired my first employees in 2016. We went through several cycles of growth beyond our capacity until we made the leap and moved to our dedicated, permanent indoor location in 2018. Today we are a successful swim school with teaching techniques based in behavioral science, physics, and child development. Our long-term goals are to make survival swim lessons more accessible to local families and to educate our community about the realities of drowning, what young children are really capable of in the water and the best way for children to learn to swim.

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
I have been extremely fortunate to have access to the opportunities that allowed me to make this road as smooth as possible. I think it’s very important to acknowledge the privilege that brought me to a place where this was possible and to use that privilege to help bring others along who were not as fortunate. That’s why diversity and social justice are such important values at our business. We are dedicated to paying a living wage, treating our employees as we would want to be treated, and ensuring that differences are welcomed and celebrated here.

Aside from that, our primary challenge has usually come down to finding pool space. Water time is very limited in this area and very expensive, especially for those who wish to run their own swim program. We went through a wide variety of solutions from renting outdoor pools, apartment pools, indoor community centers, and even teaching at a small outdoor pool at my home. All of these solutions worked for us when we needed them and we were fortunate to have those opportunities, but eventually the business grew too large and we needed our own space. I do not have any formal business education nor experience in building renovations, so navigating that was a unique challenge. Luckily I had some wonderful folks involved with the project whose expertise I could rely on. Everyone involved learned and grew from making our permanent home a reality, especially myself!

All businesses have their challenges, but I am so grateful to have achieved my dream. There are still days when I struggle to believe this is really happening. I will never forget that I have this because of the hard work and dedication of all of our wonderful employees as well as our loyal and amazing swim families!

As you know, we’re big fans of PhD Swim School. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about the brand?
We are a local swim school with one permanent, indoor location in South Durham and two pools within that location. One of our pools has a swim current which can be used to accommodate advanced and competitive swimmers of all levels. We are primarily known for teaching survival swimming to infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, but we also offer pre-stroke and stroke lessons for this age group after completion of the initial 7-week course. Survival swimming is the ability to roll from face down to face up in the water and float, regardless of the water’s depth, until rescue. We teach this starting when babies begin crawling and believe it is so important because drowning is the number one cause of accidental death between ages 1 and 4 years.

My favorite aspect of teaching swimming is the intersection between survival swimming and competitive swimming; in academia, we would call that my ‘research interest,’ and I could definitely talk about it all day! I saw a need for a program that started with the ability so self-rescue but could grow with the child. There are many options for survival swim that do not offer advanced skill development after the initial lessons are complete, and there are many options for traditional swim lessons that teach stroke technique with little regard for teaching self-rescue. I believe that these two skillsets are best taught together and that teachers should be highly trained on both.

I am very proud of our training program which requires at least 50 hours of hands-on, in-water training as well as academic self-study. I believe that our instructors are truly the most well-rounded, best-trained swim teachers in the area, and we pride ourselves on continuing our education in our staff-only closed Facebook group. I am constantly looking for new ideas to incorporate into our program and discussing with my staff any suggestions they may have. I want our professional development to be a collaborative effort where our staff feels that their feedback is valued, and I feel we have achieved that! We generally try to “do the right thing” in all aspects of running our business, even if it’s not the easiest thing or the most profitable. I believe that if you treat others as you’d want to be treated, the success will come organically, and we’ve definitely seen that so far!

We’d love to hear about any fond memories you have from when you were growing up?
This may come as no surprise, but my first job as a summer swim league coach! Swim team provided an escape from my otherwise tumultuous childhood and made me feel like I was really making a difference in the lives of these little people who looked up to me. I knew immediately that I wanted to keep doing that job for the rest of my life but always thought it wasn’t possible. I’ve worked hard for the past 20 years to create a place where this IS possible, and I am so grateful that now the “summer swim season” will never end!


  • $50: Registration fee per family (One time, covers cost of administrative software and paying the front desk a living wage)
  • $450: Initial 7-week survival course (Includes 21 one-on-one lessons, 3x/week for 7 weeks)
  • $165: cost of once-a-week lessons after completion of initial course, covers 7 one-on-one lessons

Contact Info:

Image Credits

Mick Shulte Photography (main image and last 4)

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