The Swim Nazi

Elise "Weezy" Gage

On a sweltering August Friday, I entered the cool, quiet sanctum of the Hilton Head Country Club lobby. I told a professionally dressed woman seated at a writing desk that I was there to meet Elise Gage, the club's swim instructor. She broke into a broad smile. "Are you Diane? You are in for a real treat!"

Shortly after, the heavy wood entrance door opened. There was a flash of energy followed by a throaty growl, like distant thunder. "There you are dahlin. Welcome. You look just like you sounded on the phone. Did you meet my husband?" she barked, indicating the elegant woman who had greeted me. "That's what I call her 'cause I love this woman. She's the only person I'd ever consider marrying." Her laugh skidded over the gravel in her throat. I had just met the unstoppable Weezy Gage.

I followed this tiny, tan, blonde dynamo, dressed in black shorts and top, up the stairs to the restaurant that overlooks the golf course. She introduced me to our waitress-another favorite friend-and we ordered salads. "People don't know me in clothes," she said. Then laughing at my expression added, "They only see me in a swimming suit." She refers to herself officially as "swim instructor, nursery teacher, major-domo, general factotum." The term "Swim Nazi" comes from a parent who fondly described how tough and determined Weezy is with the children she teaches to swim so they will be safe around water. The name stuck.
For the next several hours Weezy whisked me along on a rollicking tour of her life. Like a practiced storyteller she began with, "This is where my journey begins." She came to Hilton Head in 2002 to be near her grandson, Hayden, who is now ten-years-old. She was hired at the Island Recreation Center. They gave her three days to give notice at the YMCA in Greenville, SC (where she worked for 20 years) and come back.

Her journey then took off on numerous side trips.
She was the second of six children. Her beloved mother died accidentally by choking on a piece of meat. Her father, Bobby Gage, played football for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1940s. Her great-grandfather was a Supreme Court Justice for South Carolina in the late 1800s; his famous last words were, "Truth and justice is the summit of being." Weezy attended USC were she "majored in partying" and later graduated from nursing school in Greenville, SC. She put her husband through Clemson where he graduated with honors. She gave birth to her son Alec Hancock and spelled his first name with a "c" instead of the proper "x" because she was still so woozy from medication. She had a religious conversion on Palm Sunday when she was 37 and gained the "moral conviction" that has guided her life.

Throughout the journey she would frequently detour off the main road, forgetting where we had just been or where we were trying to go, but that made it more fun. "You're going to have to keep me on track," she laughed. "After all that chemo, my mind just seems to go on little trips on its own. I'm not the driver, so just hold on and try to steer me back."

Three years ago Weezy was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma. She survived two grueling years of chemotherapy that left her bedridden much of the time. She wants people to know that her treatment was made possible by a sponsorship through the Hilton Head Hospital. Her faith and devotion to her grandson helped sustain her.and she's tough. Nothing stops this woman.

Weezy Gage also has a mission. This is the reason she agreed to be interviewed. SHE WANTS TO SAVE CHILDRENS' LIVES BY MAKING SURE THEY KNOW HOW TO SWIM. There is one story she keeps insisting we get back to no matter how many detours we take. It is the story of her first private lesson after she moved to Hilton Head. A family with three children-two, four, and six-rented a house with a pool on Singleton Beach for three weeks. The children didn't know how to swim. Weezy was hired to give them daily lessons. One evening, near the end of their stay, the father saw that a planter, placed near an exit door to keep the children inside, had been moved. The door was open. He frantically checked the pool and around the house. Panicked, he raced to the ocean where he saw three little swimmers doing their strokes. He went to find Weezy and personally tell her, "My God Weezy, you saved my life, you saved my children." He squeezed four $100 bills into her hand and said, "Thank you."

She says, "Hilton Head is an island surrounded by water. There are thousands of home swimming pools on this island where children live or visit. Water is wonderful and it's dangerous. I want every child to know how to swim so they will be safe." No matter how many detours Weezy Gage's life journey takes, that's the destination that drives her.

Up Close:

Weezy's mother taught her to swim; she gave her first lesson when she was four-years-old for 25 cents. She just missed the cut for the US Olympic diving team.

Favorite Quote:
"Thoughts produce actions; actions produce habits; habits produce character; character determines destiny.

Best Style Accessory: Purple metallic reading glasses.

Best Swimming Instruction for Kids: Put your fuzzy caterpillars (eyebrows) in the water and blow the birthday candles out.