Frances Meadows Aquatic Center
When: 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday; 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday
Where: 1545 Community Way, Gainesville
How much: $175 for annual pass; $6 drop-in fee per class
More info: www.gainesville.org/frances-meadows
The man struggled to walk.
He wanted to take a class at Frances Meadows Aquatic Center, but he wasn’t able to traverse the entire distance from the parking lot to the pool.
A chair provided the needed respite, and he sat, catching his breath.
A few weeks later, he made the same trek. But this time he did so with a spring in his step, passing right by that chair. In fact, he even made the trip twice — walking all the way to class, only to remember he wanted to come back to the front desk to tell the workers there how much stronger he felt.
“That’s what makes our jobs fun. Capital F–U–N Fun and effective,” aquatics instructor Jan Nance said.
She and her manager, Zandrea Stephens sat in Stephens’ office, chatting about how they adore seeing people advance in fitness.
The two know a few things about the journey. Although both are still what they call “heavy gals,” they have lost a combined total of several hundred pounds through one simple activity: teaching.
Women at large
Nance knows what it’s like sit on the sidelines, although she started as an active player in the game of fitness.
She owned a plus-sized women’s clothing store in Roswell and was teaching aerobics for a group called “Women at Large.”
Then she got divorced, faced health issues and put on weight.
“It got to where I weighed over 500 pounds, and I just didn’t have the confidence,” she said.
But she wanted a change, and a friend encouraged her to make it.
She took her first steps by simply going to the local YMCA.
“I went to that Y, and I just sat outside, watching all of the people go inside,” Nance said. “I wanted to see if there was anybody even close to my size.”
Her friend then motivated her to do more than just sit outside, and before she knew it, Nance was inside and in the pool.
“In the water, I could do whole classes, where I was having problems on the land classes,” she said.
She worked out and whittled down, losing more than 150 pounds and gaining confidence. Soon, she decided that she wanted to teach.
“I just had a connection with the people, and teaching has just been a great, great experience for me,” she said.
Keep coming back
While Stephens didn’t have the same amount of weight to lose as Nance, she faced her own obstacles.
Her medical records listed diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. As a mother of three, she knew she couldn’t maintain an unhealthy lifestyle.
“I had gotten to the point where it was getting very serious, and one day, I just decided to take a class,” Stephens said. “I realized that I have to be here for my kids. They expect me to be vibrant and full of energy every day, and I wasn’t.”
The transition wasn’t easy.
“I couldn’t even make it through 10 minutes of the class, and I went home and cried all evening,” she said. “But the important thing is that I came back. I came back, and I tried Zumba. And I loved it, and I kept coming back. I was still the heaviest in any class I took, but I knew I could do it.”
She, too, gained confidence. Then she approached the facility’s directors about possibly teaching. Several certifications later, she found herself as an Aqua Zumba instructor, and during her time in that position, she lost 50 pounds.
“I had a background in education, so this just seemed to make sense,” Stephens said. “I fell in love with it.”
Church of the water
Now the two women have joined forces. Stephens serves as the recreation program manager at the Frances Meadows Aquatic Center, and Nance works as one of the most popular water aerobics instructors. Together, the two have revolutionized the water classes. Fourteen different water classes are available, in addition to the 13 land classes. The aquatics programs range from stretch and flex, deep water, Aqua Zumba, gentle movements, aqua attitude and water works.
Both women are constantly recruiting more participants.
Some of the main obstacles holding people back from trying water classes are exactly what you’d expect, Nance said.
“They don’t want to be seen in a bathing suit. That’s the first reason,” she said. “The second reason is that they don’t know how to swim or are afraid of the water or don’t want to get their head wet. The third reason is that they hurt when they stand or move or walk. And then, they worry about the image, that it’s just a geriatrics class.”
All of those problems can easily be addressed, Stephens said, especially the first one.
“I’m still heavy, but I’m sexy wherever I go,” she said. “Honey, put on that cover-up or that T-shirt and do what you have to do. Nobody’s going to be paying attention to you. They’re busy worrying about doing the moves.”
Class member Shannon Mooney said earlier this year that was one reason she enjoyed the class.
“No one is worried about what everybody looks like,” she said.
The Gainesville woman, who has dealt with a lifetime of obesity, said she thought she would be self-conscious about joining the class in June. She hadn’t been swimming in more than 20 years. However, the 41-year-old grandmother saw people similar to her in the class.
“And I liked the class so much that I didn’t care anymore,” she said.
Additionally, Nance and Stephens say the class is perfect for those with medical issues. Already enrolled in the classes are people with knee, hip or back problems, advanced multiple sclerosis, cancer, Parkinson’s and muscular dystrophy.
“We have people coming directly out of rehab,” Nance said. “And we have people (who) take our classes so they can avoid rehab.”
But most of the people come for the fun, the women said.
“We have here what I like to call the church of the water,” Nance said. “We have such a caring, supportive community.”
Stephens adds, “Across the board, our instructors are phenomenal. They care about the customers here. They know them by name.”
The customers agree, saying the classes have helped improve quality of life.
“The class helps me reduce depression and increase mobility,” Karen Santana said.
Work in progress
Both women have farther to go, and they’re actively working on taking the needed steps to reaching their goals.
Nance recently had doctor-recommended surgery to help with weight loss, and she’s down another 150 pounds. Stephens has started implementing other elements, such as drinking more water and cutting portion sizes.
“It’s a work in progress,” she said. “But I went from a shot and two pills and cholesterol medication to no shot and almost no cholesterol medication. I just feel very blessed. Being involved in water classes just gave me a different outlook on life.”