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'It's all I've got:' Bozeman dive instructors fight for pool time to help train rescue divers

Sports Cove maintains gear, equipment for Montana search and rescue teams, offered trips for groups abroad
Posted at 6:07 PM, Jul 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-02 20:07:07-04

BOZEMAN — A Bozeman business dedicated to training scuba divers across the state, including the teams that save lives and recover those lost, may have to close its doors for good.

And it’s due to an understaffing issue caused by COVID-19.

“I’ve been basically unemployed since February,” says Steve Lantz, owner of Sports Cove.

Lantz has trained divers all around the world since 1986.

He’s also coached swimming in Bozeman for around six years and used to teach scuba diving at Montana State University.

To many in Bozeman, he’s known as “Scuba Steve.”

“We have trained roughly 5,000 people everywhere between ages 10 and 80,” Lantz says.

...From taking Boy Scouts to the sea or training others to save lives.

“We do all of the training for the sheriff’s department, the dive team and we are the only one in town that can do that,” Lantz says.

The issue began, as many things have, with COVID-19.

“People quit traveling,” Lantz says. “When people quit traveling, we lost that revenue. “Our business is training divers, taking them on trips, servicing their gear. We take people all over the world. If people looked at our Facebook site and went through the photo albums, we just took a group to Indonesia for a month. We’re supposed to be in Mexico right now with groups. We’ve had to cancel two trips in two weeks in Fiji, two trips in Cozumel and one week in the Bahamas.”

“Really, [Steve’s] kind of the backbone that holds us all together,” says Jonathan Ogden, who sat next to Lantz, dressed in his uniform. “We take what we can learn here from Steve and his crew here and we turn around and we try to teach water safety to the community at all ages, ranging from 6, 7 years old all the way up to people in their 60s and 70s.”

That’s coming from Ogden, the vice-chair of the Gallatin County Tactical Dive Recovery Team.

“We come here for service for our equipment that we use everyday and whenever we get a callout, we come here for training,” Ogden says.

But since the pandemic, training stopped, altogether.

For a different reason.

“What’s happened is we can’t get pooltime,” Lantz says. “The pool sits empty after 3 pm.”

MTN’s Cody Boyer went to the city for answers.

According to the Bozeman parks and recreation director Mitch Overton, not having enough life guards at the Bozeman Swim Center makes training there unsafe.

So he offered a solution.

“We were unable to accommodate the traditional time so we offered alternative times for them to use,” Overton says. “Monday through Thursday 9 am to 1 pm.”

The city’s option, Bogert Pool, has a few concerns for Steve Lantz.

It’s outdoors, which could make training complicated in thunderstorms as well as the time needed to train, as many divers would work their day jobs in the morning and early afternoon.

To Lantz, that doesn’t work.

“We taught in that pool for years with no lifeguards,” Lantz says. “We’re professional rescuers. We can teach on the weekends and I’m not opposed to using Bogert but we need the evening and weekend times where it works for people. We’re all first-aid, CPR instructors. We’re rescue certified. We are rescue trainer certified and for probably 10 years, we have taught at that pool with no lifeguard supervision.”

Lantz says he wants to make it clear that he understands where the Bozeman Swim Center manager is coming from.

“She’s great,” Lantz says. “I’ve known her because I was a lifeguard for the city for years and she has always supported us. She’s just short-handed.”

To Ogden, the “family” Lantz has created is threatened to fall apart, forcing the rescue team to consider training hours away to train at all.

“He’s always been here with open arms, made it a family,” Ogden says. “You almost feel like somebody’s trying to take that away from you.”

Jeff Sylvan, who has helped Lantz as a dive instructor for around 16 years, says the dilemma is confusing but shouldn’t be.

“It completely baffles me,” Sylvan says. “As we go on through the years, we have members of the dive team rotating out so we can bring new blood in. Without the dive shop being here and being able to train new and upcoming divers that have a will to serve and have a passion to get into search and rescue, the dive team will eventually become no more.”

“We really value Sports Cove,” Overton says. “We’ve worked to provide them with the availability of 16 hours per week that they can choose from.”

But without lifeguards, city officials say returning to traditional training still can’t happen.

Overton says there is hope, if lifeguards apply.

“We’re actively recruiting as we speak,” Overton says. “Accidents happen in these situations all across the country in the world, be it swim teams, scuba lessons. It’s not without real safety concerns and inherent risk.”

When asked if Sports Cove could start using the Bozeman Swim Center again when they are fully staff, Overton replied: “Absolutely.”

“A lot of our traditional staff had left town because school had closed,” Overton says. “They worked here and we weren’t, during the initial response. We were only hiring critical service or emergency response workers and lifeguards weren’t even there because pools weren’t even opened. We will train for, certify staff, very good positions in the city, year-round positions of full time and part time.”

He hopes they can have the roster back up to speed by August.

But Lantz’s concern is it may already be too late, even for help that “Scuba Steve” emotionally can’t accept from his customers.

“They’d offer to write me a check to stay open,” Lantz says. “That’s the kind of customers I have and I wouldn’t take it. I’d rather close.”

Lantz, Sylvan, Ogden: all say they are holding on for a miracle.

As for “Scuba Steve” himself, he has a single request.

“I want pooltime,” Lantz says. “I want to go back to work. That’s all I’m asking for.”