The Little Mermaid of Indian Springs
Patricia Robinson Nielson has some wonderful memories of Indian Springs and the positive effect it had on her life. She was an acolyte of famed swim coach Lyle Draves, and she was at the Springs in the “glory years” of the late ‘40s/ early ‘50s when the pool was a magnet for swimming and diving athletes. Pat grew up in the Crescenta Valley in the hard years of the Depression, with little to aspire to. In those days polio was a feared disease, and there was a strong belief that it could be contracted in public pools. Because her aunt had polio and was in an iron lung, there was no way her dad was going to let her and her brother enjoy a swim at Indian Springs.
Pat’s granny on the other hand felt it was important for the kids to learn to swim. She put her foot down and demanded that the kids have swim lessons, even paying for it herself, a phenomenal $50 for 10 lessons for Pat and her brother.
Pat’s brother dropped out early, but Pat’s natural swimming talent took off under the tutelage of instructor Lyle Draves. Pat became a fixture at the pool and today remembers, “I was in the pool so much that I got rusty.” Pat continued getting advanced swimming instruction from Draves and was fortunate enough to watch him coaching his talented wife to triumph at the 1948 Olympics, a huge inspiration for all the kids at Indian Springs.
In the post-WWII years, many returning vets were attending local colleges, Glendale and Occidental, on the GI Bill and spending off hours at Indian Springs. Pat, now a young teenager, was enamored with these handsome young men. One of them, working as a lifeguard at the Springs, took Pat under his wing, and taught her the essential skills of lifeguarding. Pat took those critical skills, along with some Red Cross life-saving training, and got a job as a lifeguard and swim instructor at the old Keyhole public pool across from Glendale College. It was 1948, Pat was just 16 years old, and she was their first female lifeguard/instructor.
Pat, now in high school, was fully hooked on the sport of swimming. In the winter, she would get out of classes early at Glendale High and take the Red Car to downtown L.A. and the L.A. Athletic Club’s indoor pool. There she met other talented swimmers and learned the art of synchronized swimming. Esther Williams’ coach booked her and other swimmers there for “aquacade shows” in Palm Springs. Aquacades were a popular entertainment featuring beautiful young men and women swimming and diving in elaborate Busby Berkeley-style choreography, often to live orchestral music.
Lyle Draves put these shows on at Indian Springs occasionally and in 1949 he and his Olympic gold-winning wife Vicki were invited to tour Europe with the Buster Crabbe Aqua Parade. Pat, still in high school, was already a seasoned performer and actually dropped out of school to accompany them as one of their stars. They toured Europe with 88 swimmers, divers and dancers and two gigantic portable pools and stages. The beautiful, blonde Pat even got some stunning reviews: “Then there was lovely Patricia Robinson, who could do a lot of diving, and who was also one of the smoothest things in the water since Esther Williams.”
Buster Crabbe and young Pat (who reviewers described as “swim star Patricia Robinson”) performed a synchronized duo swim ballet “which utilized romantic music, lights and flowing motion to create an atmosphere of aquatic beauty.”
When Pat returned, she finished high school, then on to Glendale and Occidental College for her teaching degree. She became a P.E. teacher at Burbank High specializing in, of course, aquatics. She had two fine kids, but continued to swim and teach swimming throughout her life. Today Pat lives in a beautiful waterfront home on Alamitos Bay and swims every day, diving in right off her front porch. Thanks to Indian Springs, Pat Nielson has enjoyed a lifetime of doing what she loves the most – swimming.