man with swim cap large

Swimming is their passion, water safety their mission

By Pamela Edward

Swimming is their passion, water safety their mission

By Pamela Edward
After a lifetime spent in and around the water, alumni Robert and Jennie Strauss are committed to educating individuals, families, and children about drowning prevention.

As a child in Mexico City, Robert Strauss, A.B. ’74, M.S.Ed. ’77, discovered a passion for swimming that became his life’s work and brought him his life partner, his wife Jennie Strauss, B.M. ’81, M.M. ’82.

It began with what Robert calls “little races” at Mexico City’s principal Jewish community center. At age nine, he qualified for a competition in El Salvador, which meant traveling by plane for the first time, a trip he still remembers with awed excitement. His talent propelled him to the 1972 Olympics, where he represented Mexico in the men’s 100- and 200-meter freestyle and freestyle relays.

Robert and Jennie Strauss
Robert and Jennie Strauss

As a student at the University of Miami in the early ’70s, he met Jennie Farberoff, a fellow swimmer who had competed at the national level in her native Colombia. They married on August 10, 1975, while Jennie was an undergraduate in the University’s School of Music and Robert was working toward his master’s in education, and teaching swimming.

After Robert’s stint as teacher and swim coach at Ransom Everglades School in Miami, he and Jennie founded Swim Gym in a warehouse in Coral Gables in 1984. After several moves, the Strausses’ swim school opened its current location in Miami Beach in 2012.

Over the years, the Strausses have made water safety their central mission.

“It has always been my mission to educate people about drowning, which is so preventable,” Robert said. “It’s not a secret that since 2008, three children [on average] have drowned every week in Florida. So, our mission is to eradicate it.”

“The biggest challenge is that people think that in five or ten lessons the teacher teaches the children to float on their backs and it’s not about that. [It’s about] not letting the child be ignorant of the consequences, about teaching the child what it means to have an exit plan before they go into the water.”

Robert draws on the principles of psychomotricity, the relationship between mental processes and physical activities, to help children develop the skills to enter and exit a body of water safely, and employs a “soft-touch, soft-voice” method to teach these skills. As a result, children “have a good idea what it is to have an exit plan in their mind before [they go into the water],” Robert said. “If it’s a pool, where are the steps? If it’s the ocean or a bay or a lake, where is the rock you are going to use to climb out? They [become] aware of the consequences and know they won’t drown in the first ten seconds. They turn and grab a wall. They learn what they have to do if I weren’t there in that moment.”

Today, nearly 50 years after Robert started teaching swimming as an undergraduate, he and Jennie have, by their calculation, helped more than 80,000 people to be safer in, around, and below the surface of the water. 

In addition to Swim Gym, which offers a full slate of swim lessons, water safety and lifeguard training, fitness classes, and a swim team, the Strausses have established the H2Os Foundation, which provides free swim lessons to children and adolescents from low-income communities in Miami, where the risk of accidental drowning is disproportionately high.

Fluent in four languages, Robert is also a sought-after speaker at swimming conferences around the world. In 2019 he received the Virginia Hunt Newman Award from the International Swimming Hall of Fame for his contributions to aquatic education. The award is named after a swimmer, diver, and innovative swim teacher who pioneered non-forceful, non-traumatic methods for teaching infants and children to swim. It’s an approach that the Strausses have made central to their mission.

Beyond water safety, there is the fun factor. “We don’t just want to teach people to swim for their life. We want people to learn to swim for their whole life, whether they use swimming as exercise or recreation,” Robert said. “Once you know how to swim, the world opens up with scuba diving, kite surfing, boating, jet skis, you name it. And you have such a good time.”

Swim Gym is one of more than 800 businesses around the country owned and operated by University of Miami alumni. Check out the ’Cane Biz directory to find ’Cane-owned businesses and alumni discounts near you. If you want to list your business in the directory, click here to tell us all about it.