Yassir Chadly leads the senior exercise class one final time at West Campus Pool on Friday, Jan. 27. Photo: Lucas Thornton

At 5:15 in the morning on his last day of work, Yassir Chadly is in the King Pool staff room, getting philosophical. But that’s the norm for a man who has, since 1992, served as swim instructor and spiritual guide at the city of Berkeley’s pools.

Lifeguards, Chadly said, are given training for how to pull someone out of the water, how many times to compress their chest if their heart has stopped beating, how to breathe air into their lungs. 

“But that’s it,” he said. “They don’t give you the rest. How to serve the person before they drown.” 

Chadly, who retired from his job as senior exercise teacher and coach of the Master’s team on Jan. 28, has taken “the rest” upon himself, mentoring generations of swimmers and guards in the stuff of life. He’s known for doling out wisdom in the pre-dawn light on topics ranging from how to swim faster to how to love one another. And no lesson is complete without a story, some parable borne from Chadly’s mind, a cross between a North African fable and a Dad joke, often involving donkeys.

Blending Islamic servitude with Buddhist mindfulness, he is the pool’s attentive host, keeping track of swimmers, the facts of their lives, their routines. If he notices a swimmer favors a certain kick-board, he will place it by their lane. Leave your flip-flops out and he will flip them around the opposite way — that way, they’re more convenient to slip on. He famously counts swimmers’ strokes (11 per length is ideal, up to 20 is OK).

One morning last year, Chadly noticed that Brian Ettlin, a usually competent swimmer, was taking twice the number of strokes he normally does. Get out, Chadly advised him, and go see a doctor. A doctor found that one of the wires in Ettlin’s pacemaker had broken: Had he kept swimming, he could have had a heart attack. “You saved my life,” Ettlin told Chadly. To thank him, Ettlin, a hobby carpenter, repaired Chadly’s fence, then built him a round wooden table and a bed frame for his middle son, Ammar, who had just moved into a new home.

The 67-year-old Moroccan immigrant has, at this point, a mythic reputation at the city’s two pools, earning him a devoted, goggle-clad following. “If my dad wanted to start a cult, he could,” said Ammar, 33, who has worked at the pools since he was 15 and follows in his father’s footsteps.

A storybook beginning

A 1973 article in the Wydad-Sports newspaper features the all-star Chadly siblings and calls the family the “symbol of Moroccan swimming.” Credit: Khadijah Chadly

Chadly’s own life has the same storybook sheen as the yarns he weaves. 

Born in Casablanca in 1954, Chadly grew up in a two-bedroom apartment facing the ocean and could hear the waves crashing from his bedroom. All six Chadly siblings had a natural affinity for the water and, when Yassir was 10 years old, they were recruited to join the city’s competitive swim team. In a few years, they all highlighted the national team: His little brother, Wahbi, and little sister, Siham, held multiple national records, and Chadly said at one point he held the country’s fastest time in the 100-meter freestyle. A 1973 article in Wydad-Sports calls the family “the symbol of Moroccan swimming.” 

But Chadly never took the sport too seriously. “A tiny sardine is faster than Michael Phelps,” he said. 

The article features 19-year-old Yassir strumming a guitar, “a dreamer” who does things simply for the pleasure of doing them. “I swim to swim, not to be selected or for a medal,” he says.

Chadly and his wife Khadijah, about seven months after they first met at the Berkeley flea market. They married three days after they met. Credit: Khadijah Chadly

Chadly first came to the United States in 1977. He found a job as a waiter and realized he could make more money in tips in a night than he made in a week teaching Arabic at home. (When his son got a job as a bartender, he found the best way to rake in tips was by imitating his father: “All I have to do is pretend I’m Yassir,” Ammar said with a laugh.) 

In 1985, Chadly met a young Jewish woman named Rochelle at the Berkeley flea market in the parking lot of the Ashby BART station. Rochelle had travelled to Morocco many times, spending time with Tangier friends who had a daughter by the name Khadijah. When Chadly asked her name, she blurted out Khadijah. They married three days later, and she has gone by the name ever since.

To make ends meet while raising three children, Chadly started taking on work outside the pool, patching together an unconventional resume. He began teaching Arabic, became an imam at a Sufi mosque in Oakland called Masjid-Al Iman, and started a band — Yassir and the Moroccans — blending traditional Moroccan music with jazz. 

In all his ventures he earned a reputation for hospitality. In that, Chadly said, he took after his father, Al Mohktar, whom everyone, even his kids, called Siddi, a sign of respect. “He touched everyone with something,” Chadly said of his father. 

Neighbors down on their luck would open the door to the apartment to find a grocery bag stuffed with fruits, vegetables, meat. Children would flip through the pages of a book and discover a bill or two. No one knew it was Siddi until he died and the little gifts stopped, his son remembered. Then so many people came to his funeral.  

‘An institution. A legend. A sage.’

At the first sign of light, Chadly steps into a small side room with a fax machine, kneeling on a small green mat to pray, as he does five times each day. Then, practice begins and the rest of the day passes in a parade of swimmers contributing to an ever-growing pile of presents as eclectic as their recipient: dates in a plastic container, a puzzle, a box of produce that Chadly re-gifts to a 22-year-old senior guard named Koshi Tamang who affectionately calls him Dad, dark chocolate truffles, morning buns from Fournee Bakery, and, notably, a traditional hat once gifted by a Kyrgyz government leader to the concert pianist Gwen Mok. “I wanted you to have it,” says Mok, who has come to the pool with her husband and little white dog, freshly groomed, to say goodbye. Her letter to Chadly begins: “To the prince of pools…” 

The pool deck starts to feel increasingly like a red carpet swarmed by paparazzi. Four different people show up with cameras to take Chadly’s photo, and I learn that Donna Mickelson, who attends his senior exercise class, already planned to write an article (she agreed to cede me the honor). Chadly worries aloud that his “ego is going to get too puffed up” and I remember Ammar telling me that his dad doesn’t like to celebrate his birthday. 

One by one, the swimmers attempt to explain what makes their beloved teacher special.

“Can I tell you a few words and phrases that describe Yassir?” asks Kelly Keller, a petite Masters swimmer in a camouflage print bathing suit, standing on the deck dripping wet, clutching a pair of Zoomers. “An institution. A legend. A sage.”

At the pool, everyone is Chadly’s guest. He greets you (“I’m Yassir, like ‘yes, sir!’”), asks you your name and how fast you swim, recommends a lane based on your fitness, and introduces you to your fellow swimmers. In other locker rooms, swimmers change in silence; here, everyone is a friend. 

Chadly makes it easier to see people in your lane, in more ways than one, Carol Mancke, who is partially blind, tells me. When she gets out of the water on Friday morning, she thanks him for “making us into a community.” 

Take a closer look and Chadly’s little touches are everywhere. Many of the yellow flippers at the head of the lanes are decorated with swimmers’ names, written in Arabic. Any swimmer can repeat the Yassir-isms that have taken root in their minds. He tells them to “swim with majesty and grace.” Enter a room with your right foot and then your left, but do the other way around for bathrooms— an exercise in mindfulness.

Chadly has taken each of the lifeguards under his wing. Kaydie Moreno, an 18-year-old guard who will take over as coach of Berkeley Aquatic Masters, said he calls every female co-worker beautiful. “I’m going to miss that,” she said. “I’m not going to have someone reassuring me that I’m beautiful every day.” 

A lap swimmer named Monique Commacio said she watched her two daughters, both lifeguards, grow up under Chadly’s tutelage. “He would teach them the kind of life lessons that, as a parent, you want to give them, but you don’t always know how.” 

“The city of Berkeley doesn’t know what they have here,” said Linda Chow, a woman who appears with a camera as the sky starts to lighten, a note of conspiracy in her voice. Back in the mid-2000s, the city was going through budget cuts and one of the positions on the chopping block — a career, part-time guard — was Chadly’s. If he were laid off or his benefits cut, Chadly planned to move his family across the country to work as a prison guard in Mississippi. 

The aquatic exercise class staged what Serbian lap swimmer Slobodan Simić called “a revolution” and for a few, feelings of resentment toward the city continue to linger. Needless to say, Chadly kept his job.

A hit with seniors

Chadly hugs Barbara Rydlander during a closing circle following the senior exercise class. Chadly says he does not need to use a cane, but uses it to stay present as he is walking. If your cane follows a woman after she passes you, that is a sin, Chadly says. Photo: Lucas Thornton.

At 9:30, Chadly drives across town to West Campus Pool’s senior aquatics class, where the feelings are particularly tender. Wearing a woven sun hat and shades, Chadly dances rhythmically in front of a group of about 20 older women and three men, mostly in their 70s, bobbing up and down in the water. The first song is “Life is Beautiful” by Keb’ Mo’ and the seniors know all the words. “I always thought I was going to leave you before you left us,” Lynn Jones-Finn, a tall woman in her early 80s wearing a black one-piece, says sadly. 

On the deck, I introduce myself to a woman with wispy white hair wearing a swimmer’s parka over slacks and say that I am writing an article about Chadly’s retirement. Tears fill her eyes immediately. “He’s just the best man,” she says, her voice quivering.

Chadly started the class for seniors in 1998 and many of the attendees have been going for years. 

The vibe is middle-school cafeteria: Barbara Rydlander, wearing a fleece purple hat with turtles, tells me from the water that “you have to have the mind of a 12-year old to enjoy it,” owing to “groaners,” which include puns and good-natured teasing. In a group photo, a woman in a teal bathing suit spreads her legs at the camera and is met with a chorus of giggles. 

But below the surface, the class— and its teacher— is a lifeline to the seniors, many of whom live alone, have lost their life partners, struggle with chronic pain, or have recently gone through a major operation. Chadly has even taken groups on guided trips to Morocco, which a swimmer named Chuck Herndon called “the trip of a lifetime.” The class ends early and the swimmers stand in a circle, reading aloud letters they’ve written to Chadly. Many thank him for saving their lives.

The day seems like the embodiment of Chadly’s life philosophy, summarized in a favorite parable of his. “If you go to a big mountain, there is an echo, and you say, ‘I love you,’ you hear back, ‘I love you.’ If you say, ‘I hate you,’ you hear back, ‘I hate you,’” Chadly says. “People are like mountains. You say ‘I love you,’ they love you back. It’s simple.” On his last day, the love echoes.

Without him, everyone is worried the pool will fall apart, and even if it doesn’t, it will never be the same. “We’re all afraid of what him leaving will do,” Chow says. Pete Ross, a Masters swimmer, advises Moreno, the next coach, not to try to fill his shoes: “You’re not going to be Yassir. So be you.”

An empty pool

Chadly with his wife, Khadijah, in front of their home in El Sobrante on Jan. 28. After he retires, Chadly says he plans to take care of his wife after a knee replacement surgery. Photo: Lucas Thornton

Rumor has it there will be a petition for him to come back after six months, but Chadly, who says he will become a “nurse” in his retirement, taking care of his wife after an imminent knee replacement surgery, has no plans to return — in his official capacity, at least. “It’s hard for my heart to leave,” he tells me.

Chadly’s last day is over by noon. He has to rush home to make it in time for a virtual sermon that his wife, Khadijah, broadcasts on Facebook Live. He stops in the staff room at West Campus Pool to say goodbye, advising Rachelle Fugitt-Schneider, the new supervisor taking over senior exercise, on how she might approach the class. “I don’t have any stories,” she complains. No, you don’t have to tell stories, he tells her. When there’s a break, tell them something personal, he suggests. 

After Chadly hands them his key, he starts fishing around in a gift bag, looking for his badge. Fugitt-Schneider tells him that they found a large hole in the back of the fence at King Pool, big enough for the neighbors to come in through. Maybe you can come in through the fence, she jokes. 

Chadly can’t find the badge, and he starts to say that, maybe, he can just return it in a couple of weeks. After all, he’s not done swimming, his eye trained on one of the fast, middle lanes on the Masters team. “I’m quitting my job, but I’m not quitting swimming,” he says over and over again throughout the day. 

“That’s the only thing HR wants,” the other supervisor says, referring to the badge. 

Fugitt-Schneider reaches into his bag, pushing aside the flowers that the women have given him, and pulls out a lanyard with a picture of Chadly on it and a black whistle, joking that he had been trying to take it with him.

Over the weekend, something in the pump room at King Pool breaks. They can’t fix it in time, and the pool is closed for the day in what feels like a symbolic confirmation of the swimmers’ fears. Without Chadly, there is no pool. “Even inanimate objects miss me,” Chadly jokes. 

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...