Swimming guru's lessons attracting students from all corners of state
HOMER – If Bruce Miller's swimming pool feels a little like "Field of Dreams," there's good reason.
There are no dead baseball greats wandering around, but his larger pool – a cerulean blue rectangle smack dab in the middle of corn and soybean fields in rural Homer – does attract a lot of talent from far away.
Or maybe it's not the pool, a far drive from Rockford or Shelbyville even in cheap-gas days. Maybe it's Miller, the 71-year-old who could pass for 50-something, the man with the tawny tanned skin and gaze focused, always focused, on whichever swimmer is moving through the water at the moment.
On Monday afternoon, Jenny Hill, an Urbana High School incoming sophomore who Miller thinks will compete in Division I one day, gets her turn for a private lesson.
Miller sits, then stands next to the pool, watching her strokes intensely. Each time she reaches the wall and pauses, they talk about her form. Why didn't her body get up out of the water? What's important about her kick?
Michael Lacine, an incoming senior at Champaign Central High School, has been taught by Miller since he was 8 years old.
"This guy, he pretty much knows everything," Lacine said. "Bruce teaches it's not how fast you do it, it's how you do it."
Lacine and his sister, Mary, say Miller excels at explaining how to get better swimming techniques using understandable metaphors, like pretending your hands are airplanes that need to land straight in the water as opposed to shooting down.
"He has a very good eye for seeing what's right and what's wrong, and he has a very good way of explaining how to get to what's right," said Howie Schein, a former student of Miller's who now helps him teach and coaches girls' swimming at University Laboratory High School. "I could never have been the kind of coach I am without his mentorship. He's my guru."
In a world of faster and stronger, Miller said he focuses instead on technique. He looks at a swimmer's stroke "like a big puzzle – you pull the puzzle apart, you do all sorts of drills, and you put it back together."
He believes being the best swimmer involves using the right muscles in the right way at the right time – he calls it "the natural way." It's a term – and a philosophy – he learned long ago from his dad, a professor in voice at the University of Illinois.
Miller started swimming, and loving to swim, as a kid in Flossmoor. When his family moved to Mahomet, his school had no swimming pool, but that didn't stop him from plenty of physical activity.
"I love the outdoors, love sports, love Illinois – there's no doubt about that – love football," he said.
At the UI, the physical-education major took a waterfront safety class where the teacher told the class that if they wanted a summer job, they should find a motel pool and teach swimming.
"That's exactly what I did," Miller said. "It grew from there to Centennial pool for one year, and then I left Centennial."
John May of Champaign was one of his early students, more than 40 years ago, and said Miller helped him earn a place on his college team, and encouraged a love of swimming that continues even to Wednesday morning, when May swam more than a mile.
Along with teaching and coaching football, Miller went on to teach for more than a decade at the Chief Illini Motel in Urbana, where he developed a reputation for teaching individuals and small groups that drew people from around the area.
In 1976, Miller and his wife, Jan, a retired social worker, decided to open a pool closer to their home – right next door, actually.
So he and Jan built it, and the swimmers came.
Eventually, they added a second pool and a fitness center and started holding summer swim camps at the Miller Aquatics and Health Club. Miller does the teaching and said Jan "keeps everything flowing." She said she's "chief cook and bottle washer, and I do the bookwork."
Every day in the warm weather, Miller spends hours outside at the pool, so many that he's usually too tired to take a swim himself.
"I can't believe that he can stand out there in 90-degree weather every day and love what he's doing – but he does," his wife said.
When he's away from the pool, Miller likes spending time on his lawn, or taking swim clinics to learn more, or chopping wood for their stoves, catching a game or a play or learning about his other passion: fireworks.
Though Miller won't host fireworks this year, he has spent several years bringing the shows to Homer.
Upward of 370 swimmers will come to Miller Aquatics this summer to learn from Miller and his staff. Some will be getting their first taste of the water, others polishing up skills for competition or pleasure – or both.
"We never expected it to get this big," Jan Miller said. "All the time, 'Can you believe people are coming all this way?'"
Michael Lacine can.
He estimated he has driven "close to a million" miles to and from Miller Aquatics, and said they were worth it.
"You don't get this kind of treatment anywhere else," he said.