Tiffany Harmon
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Working in Santa Cruz

How I Got My Job: Swim school entrepreneur Tiffany Harmon on surviving the pandemic as small business owner

Swim school owner Tiffany Harmon turned her love of the water into a career teaching swim lessons and training others in water safety. Through issues with staffing, COVID-19, and personal loss, Harmon has found support in personal mentors and small business resources.

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Swim school owner and Red Cross water safety instructor Tiffany Harmon teaches children more than just swimming — she teaches responsibility, social skills and a lifelong love for the water. Her Aptos-based Seahorse Swim School has a variety of swimming-related programs that range from children’s swim lessons to Red Cross certification courses.

Tiffany Harmon's Education

  • Associate’s degree in Liberal Arts Santa Monica College
  • Bachelor’s degree in psychology from UC Santa Cruz
  • American Red Cross instructor training in water safety instruction

Now 52, Harmon’s passion for swimming and water safety began from the moment she started swimming lessons at age 4, launching a childhood full of swim team competitions and CPR classes. Harmon continued swimming and doing first-aid training in community college, where she swam on the Santa Monica Community College swim team.

Even Harmon’s first job as a teenager was at a pool, she worked as a locker attendant at a local municipal pool in her hometown of Los Angeles. She recalls looking outside at the lifeguards and wishing to be like them; she just needed to figure out how to take that first step.

Eventually, Harmon became certified as a water safety instructor through the American Red Cross. From there, she taught group lessons at her local pool, and later taught private swimming lessons in backyard pools throughout Los Angeles. When she moved north to attend UC Santa Cruz, she was surprised to find the area had considerably fewer backyard pools than L.A.

Instead, Harmon took a job teaching swimming lessons and lifeguarding for the County of Santa Cruz, allowing her to work on the team that opened Simpkins Family Swim Center. Harmon helped hire the first 80 lifeguards for the facility, helped create a system for evaluating new staff, and set up the first aid office, among other duties. The experience, Harmon says, gave her the knowledge of what it takes to open a swim school.

Tiffany Harmon gives a student a thumbs up.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In 1999, deciding she wanted to be her own boss, Harmon began offering her own swimming lessons at the City of Santa Cruz’s Harvey West Pool, while continuing to work a second job at Camp Campbell, packing her schedule with her two areas of work.

From there, she also began teaching CPR and first aid through the American Red Cross in classrooms and job sites.

Harmon has brought her swimming and water safety expertise to pools throughout the county, from Chaminade Resort to Toadal Fitness. She now runs her school out of both Seascape Sports Club and her private pool in her Aptos home.

However, Harmon struggles with a staffing shortage, which makes it difficult to offer all of the programs she would like to. “I am a lifeguarding instructor and I’m a water safety instructor trainer so I can run all those classes – I just don’t have enough time to do them,” Harmon said.

Harmon says she simply can’t start imagining changes or additions to her business without first having more staff. “I’d like to have help so I don’t have to worry about not being able to serve everybody,” said Harmon.

To try to combat this, she is currently working on a stroke reference manual for both her own staff training and as an online guide for the public. She hopes that will act as a legacy for her lessons and be useful for future water safety instructors during their training.

Harmon says it’s incredibly important to avoid the negative experiences that can discourage a student from wanting to learn for a lifetime. To do this, she tries to ensure she corrects a student’s form on their initial try so that the student does it the right way the first time and develops muscle memory early on.

Harmon makes sure she meets every child at their own pace straight away by taking note of their emotions when they arrive to swim lessons. “I can see it in their eyes how they behave,” Harmon said. “I am able to help them overcome fears by seeing that they have the fears.”

Tiffany Harmon lifts a student out of the water
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

She adds her own personal touch to her business by creating interactive welcome cards for new students designed to look like a cruise ship pass. The card will include a list of pictures of what the student needs to bring on their first day to be added to their swim bags. Harmon hopes this creates a sense of responsibility within the student to make sure they have everything they need to succeed.

At this point in her life, Harmon works in the water twice a week. She worked hard during the early stages in her career to gain the ability to train others in her philosophy so that she can step back and continue teaching while also fostering her own personal side projects.

One such side project is volunteering as the Thursday morning DJ for KZSC-FM 88.1 with her program “Joy in the Morning,” when she plays reggae music. She began the program when she was a student and has continued for the past 28 years.

Outside of work, Harmon spends her time practicing self-care and working on construction projects around her home, including renovating her own pool, which she hopes to keep in working shape for her school.

Harmon said one of the most rewarding aspects of her career is “saving lives and being a part of a global mission to do that by teaching people how to swim.”

She also noted how special it is to get to watch kids she taught go on to pursue careers in water-related fields. Some have come back to work for Harmon, while others have gone on to be champion competitive swimmers and synchronized swimmers.

A serious challenge Harmon faced in recent years was the death of both her father and mother. Her mother, Ginger Harmon, passed away in 2016 and her father, “The Young and the Restless” actor William Wintersole, in 2019. Harmon went to Los Angeles 29 times in 2019, the year her father died, to manage his medical needs and give support while he was ill.

Luckily, Harmon’s career is flexible – the more you work, the more you make. After pool rent and paying staff the proper amount, Harmon says swim instructors can still expect to make a healthy amount of money if they teach enough hours. Harmon starts staff members at $18 an hour and only goes up from there.

Like many other businesses in 2020, Harmon’s school lost a lot of money when it was forced to close during the pandemic. But the lockdown also gave Harmon a much needed break to grieve, being just a few months after her father’s death.

Harmon recognizes the importance of finding advisors and checking in regularly for support when running a business. Her advice to someone who might be interested in starting their own business is to find mentors and be willing to show initiative.

Among Harmon’s personal resources and mentors are the Santa Cruz Small Business Development Center, close friend and Red Cross supervisor Dawna Ashton, and Harmon’s late father. “I find the biggest thing [is] to be learning to humble yourself and learn from others, seek out people who have done it before,” Harmon said. “But at the same time,” she added, “having creativity is important, integrity is No. 1 in business.”

Harmon’s career is not for the idle. Day to day, she has to worry about business paperwork, phone calls, finding staff, paying bills and taking care of the pool on top of her own personal life tasks. But for those with the passion for swimming and teaching that Harmon has, the job is rewarding enough to persevere through the struggle and watch future swimmers shine.

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