This article has been amended since first posting to correct an error. The open house for friends and former students is 2 to 4 p.m. this Sunday, Aug. 25, not Saturday.
Before Lynn Valley ends and the backcountry begins there’s a house with a backyard pool where generations of children dunked, floated, backstroked, crawled and learned to survive in the water.
And standing on that pool’s deck, helping each fearful child make the migration from dry land to the deep end, there’s Lanny Backie.
In the era between Dog Day Afternoon and Fortnite, Backie has instructed, corrected, cajoled and congratulated approximately 10,000 young swimmers. But after 45 years of watching children walk in and swim away, Backie will give her last lesson this Friday.
“It’s been such a big part of our lives,” Backie says. But, she adds firmly: “It’s time.”
On a recent sunny afternoon, after watching two boys get in one last cannonball and 360 off the diving board, Backie sat poolside and reflected on her childhood summers at Crescent Beach.
Her family wasn’t rich but her mother would skimp and sacrifice so her daughters could spend a month leaving tiny footprints in the sand and jumping into crystal water.
There’s a memory locked in those summers that’s as hazy as a well-shaken Polaroid. Backie doesn’t remember when or exactly why, but she found a passion for diving. And just across the lane from her childhood home in Kerrisdale, she found a diving coach. Lynda Adams Hunt was an Olympic diver at 16 and a double silver medallist at the 1938 British Empire Games. She was also Backie’s neighbour.
For Backie, Hunt was the rare coach who combined skill with sensitivity. “Every painful thing you ever did, she felt it twice as much,” she recalls.
There was one dive Backie remembers with perfect clarity. She touched off a three-metre board, opened up like a switchblade and hit the pool chest first. As bruises formed like storm clouds, Backie eased out of the pool. Hunt was waiting, looking as apologetic as a Canadian sending back bad pie at a diner.
“Lanny, I hate to ask you to do this, but if you don’t do it again, right now, you’ll never do it,” Hunt told her.
Backie got back on the diving board.
“I did it exactly the same,” Backie says, cringing and grinning at the memory. “That might be one of the reasons I decided to stop.” She takes a moment to think about it. “I’ve always wanted to teach anyway.”
Injuries and persistence
Backie shudders at the memory of pain. She also shudders when asked how she met her husband, Dave. “Oh my god. You don’t want to know that,” she says, before telling the story of a party in the 1960s that led to 53 years of marriage.
“My date was totally blitzed so he left,” Backie recalls. “Dave took his date home and came back and picked me up.”
One month after meeting her, Dave hurt his leg playing football. The injury slowed Dave on the field but not in courtship.
“He drove all the way down to see me at Washington State with his leg in a full cast,” Backie recalls, laughing. “He got there and I’m thinking, ‘I don’t even know if I like this guy.’”
The pair got married less than a year later. She was 22. He was 21. “What were we thinking?” Backie sighs. “It was a whole different time. If things didn’t work out you didn’t just say goodbye.”
Then she laughs. “I’d never let my parents know I screwed up.”
Yes, in my backyard
The couple moved to Lynn Valley shortly after Dave got a job teaching at Argyle Secondary. Gorgeous trees stretched over the roofline of their Hoskins Road house but Dave had a particular vision for their backyard.
“Every sunny day I’d take her on the deck and say: ‘Just picture it, crystal clear water,’” Dave recalls. “How are we going to pay for it?” she’d ask. “You can teach swimming,” he told her. At least, that’s Dave’s account. “He didn’t sell me on the idea,” Backie objects. “Liar, liar.”
Despite teaching at Capilano Winter Club for 12 years and being certified as a Red Cross swim instructor more than 20 times, Backie is an outlier among swim teachers.
Generally, Red Cross programs emphasize fun. “I don’t play games. We learn to swim,” Backie says. “I’ve only got a half an hour, if I’m [singing songs] they’re not even going to get their bodies in the water.”
Each class starts with the child – whether they want to or whether they’re horrified – dipping under the water. “Some of them, that’s a big freakout,” Backie acknowledges.
Usually, Backie consoles the child by telling them they don’t have to go underwater again. But some kids can’t be consoled, she adds, remembering a girl who screamed for five minutes without seeming to draw a breath.
But the only way to learn, Backie says, is to keep doing it.
“The best sense of satisfaction is from the little ones that really can’t get their faces in the water and by the end of two weeks they’re in, they’re comfortable, and the crying has stopped.”
Generally, it’s easier to teach a fearful four-year-old than a stubborn eight-year-old, Backie says.
“When they’re eight years old and they’re still not wanting to put their face in the water . . . you have to say: ‘That’s it, you are learning to swim. . . . I don’t care how long it takes.”
In Backie’s backyard, it doesn’t usually take too long. She maintains the pool at 89 degrees, which keeps kids happy and swimming on those chilly May evenings.
“I don’t do cold,” Backie says.
Backie is matter-of-fact about her approach to discipline. She’s 86’d a few kids from the pool over the years, including, on one occasion, her own daughter. “If people don’t like me, that’s fine – then don’t come back,” Backie says.
But while Backie doesn’t play, she’s playful. Her speaking voice routinely veers from a Foghorn Leghorn drawl to crisp, crumpets and tea English enunciation.
“She was just a natural teacher,” said former District of North Vancouver mayor Richard Walton, whose daughters learned to swim from Backie.
“Her backyard was always full of people coming and going,” Walton recalls. “She just had this wonderful manner where you took your kids in the backyard. Then you were told you sat over there at the side and you didn’t get involved.”
Like most good teachers, Backie mastered the art of teaching the kids without letting them realize they’re learning, Walton says. And as parents relaxed, children stored away lifelong lessons.
Walton’s daughters each put themselves through university working as lifeguard and swimming instructors, he says.
“And it all started in Lanny’s backyard,” Walton reflects. “You probably will find there’s hundreds of stories just like that.”
Out of the pool
The May long weekend has marked the beginning of swimming season in the Backie backyard since the first prime minister Trudeau.
Backie is 75 now, and she’s starting to feel worn at the end of the day.
It’s not just from swimming lessons. Backie writes 48 report cards every Thursday night. There’s registration, taking payments, making calls and updating her paperwork – which she still does with paper and pencil. (“Very old school,” she adds.)
“If I didn’t have to do all of that crap,” she says, her voice dropping almost to mute, “if I could just come out and teach, I could probably do it forever.”
She teaches six kids at a time and generally charges $5 more than the rec centre. “I figure I’m just a little bit better than them,” she explains.
There’s nothing that infuriates Backie like a kid who gets it in his head that he can’t do something she knows he can do. “You’re wasting you mom’s money!” she finds herself thinking.
This Sunday, Aug. 25, from 2 to 4 p.m., the Backies are holding an open house for friends and former students.
It’s rare that one person can have deep enough roots to impact two or three generations of young people in a neighbourhood, Walton says.
“There aren’t that many people who stay in homes that long anymore,” he notes.
Lanny has stayed in the same home, with the same husband, and with many of the same beliefs for half a century.
She doesn’t have a cellphone. Instead, she has a cage for her grandchildren’s cellphones for when they visit.
At her last re-certification, she had to get in the pool to swim amid teens and 20-somethings. A woman at the front desk, who’d seen Lanny hop into the pool many times, quietly assured her that her strokes are “really nice still.”
As part of the certification process, Lanny had to produce a mock report card. An 18-year-old struggled to read it. Lanny started to apologize. “Your handwriting is beautiful,” the teenager told her. “I just can’t read cursive writing.”
“That’s the way of the world and that’s the way it’s going,” she says. “And I’m not going along with it very well.”