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Omaha Magazine

In the Pool and on the Road

Feb 21, 2024 03:20PM ● By Holly McAtee
jeanie neal 60+ active living omaha magazine march april 2024

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

When talking with Jeanie Neal, Program Director for Face-Up First®, the joy she has for swimming is immediately evident. The 63-year-old has enjoyed a lifelong love of swimming and adventure thanks to her mother, who got her children into swimming at a young age, because she wanted them to enjoy swimming and stay safe in the water. The self-described “pool rat” swam summer league and eventually, year-round. She also taught lessons and coached while in high school. Neal then swam a semester at the University of Nebraska Omaha but left to become the full-time coach at Millard Aquatic Club.  

Her sense of adventure then took her to Florida, where she worked in construction management. She also coached swimming part-time for Palm Beach County pool and taught private lessons at people’s homes. The county was building a new pool, so she helped to get the new swim team established. Neal’s sister, Jo Ellen, joined her in Florida, and the two coached the team for 10 years. Together, they built the club around a “good times” philosophy and a list of “Ten Training Habits.” During this time, they started using the Face-Up First® swimming method of instruction.

“I really liked teaching and coaching. Mostly, I wanted my students to like swimming as much as I did,” Neal shared. “I had thoughtful and caring coaching mentors and friends, including my high school coach, who introduced me to what would become the motto: ‘We swim for good times!’” 

Eventually, Neal moved back to Omaha with her son, Jason, where she became the Aquatics Director at Brownell-Talbot School, where she taught for 14 years. A drowning at a local business prompted her to start an online water safety education course for parents and caregivers. She first taught the course in person and then put the information online. It has continued to grow in scope and reach every year.

In 2017, Neal founded her own swimming school, Face Up First®, or “FUF,” for short. She partnered with Shelby Schultz and several other licensed providers for the curriculum. The collaboration with Schultz has led to many innovations and improvements in the FUF swimming program. Lessons take place at Omaha Home for Boys, College of Saint Mary, and the Omaha Kroc Center. Neal currently teaches around 200 swimmers a week.

FUF is a unique approach that uses the “SWIM” model: S-Stabilize; W-Wend; I-Idle; M-Measure. The focus is on first obtaining a relaxed, balanced back float, then propulsive movements. From there, students learn moving with purpose, and finally, they develop advanced swimming strokes and techniques. 

To be a safe swimmer, Neal emphasized that it’s important for students to know how to stop and adjust. “Babies can do the stabilize part, but they can’t measure,” she explained. “It’s important to have the ability to stop and be still. Kids aren’t truly skilled at swimming until they can think while they are doing stuff.” 

When teaching FUF, Neal focuses on the joy and opportunity that comes from learning how to swim. “There’s a lot of water in the world. Everyone will be spending time around it, and hopefully, in it. I want everyone to be able to enjoy those opportunities to the fullest,” she said.

FUF also has a Developmental Program for groups of skilled swimmers, who swim full lengths of the pool to improve their stroke technique and learn about the sport of competitive swimming. In all her programs, the focus is on individualizing the instruction to each swimmer. In both the instructional and developmental segments, the strokes taught remain the same and are practiced in the same order during the lessons, but at ever-increasing levels. The program also emphasizes swim team skills based on FUF’s “Ten Training Habits.”

Katie Sewell has three children who took lessons from Neal. “Jeanie is so dedicated to teaching and developing her students as people. She made it fun for my kids,” she shared. “My son, Tommy, swims for Creighton Prep, and she still follows him. She will send us a text about his events. She’s had a real positive influence on all my kids’ lives.” 

In addition to swimming, Neal has always loved traveling. In 2019, she took a trip to Alaska to visit friends and toured a husky kennel that specializes in mushing, also known as dogsledding. Neal had discovered mushing during a trip to Ely, Minnesota, and fell in love with the sport. 

A friend piqued her interest in the Iditarod, the famed annual long-distance dogsledding race that takes place in March, so when Neal returned to Omaha, she purchased a van and embarked on a six-month tour of Alaska to visit more dogsledding kennels. During that time, she lived in her van and worked in the office at Jeff King’s Husky Homestead. King is often called the “Winningest Musher in the World” and has won the Iditarod four times. Neal was delighted to be able to attend the race while in Alaska. “I was there with the whole crew and the dogs!” she recounted.

After that experience, Neal kept her van, which she affectionately nicknamed “Vanderley” as a witty play on words for the Manderley mansion in Daphne du Maurier’s novel, “Rebecca.” 

“Manderley burns down in the novel,” she joked. “I hope I didn’t jinx myself.”

Throughout the pandemic, Neal dreamt about moving into Vanderley full-time and traveling. In January 2022, she took the leap and has lived in her van ever since. Neal works at FUF three days a week and travels the other four with her two van cats, Pete and Julius. She posts one-minute videos of her travels using the handle VanlifeMinutes on Instagram and YouTube. 

“What I love best about living in Vanderley is the freedom to pick up and go wherever, whenever. Wherever I go, I am always home. I am always pretty content wherever I am,” Neal said.

That contentment comes from living a simple life without many possessions. At first, Neal believed she would miss buying things, but now she loves simply window shopping. “I look at the beautiful things without considering buying them. I just enjoy them. Sounds corny, but I just collect memories now,” she shared. 

Neal also enjoys meeting kindred spirits on the road and swapping stories. 
“I never feel lonely on the road,” she beamed.

Neal’s brother once told her that her world is “so big.” 

“What I like best about my van life is that it makes my world feel even bigger,” she said. 

To learn about Jeanie Neal’s swimming methods, visit faceupfirst.com.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Omaha Magazine. To subscribe, 
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