She founded two of the most prominent and influential groups for aquatic exercise and therapy. But to hear Ruth Sova tell it, that was all just dumb luck.
“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” says Sova, now the president of the Aquatic Therapy & Rehabilitation Institute.
The time Sova is speaking about is 1976. That’s when she first got involved in fitness, looking for a way to lose weight after her children were born. She started out begrudgingly doing land-based workouts — until she discovered the water. “It just felt good,” she recalls. “I didn’t even know I was exercising.”
It wasn’t long before Sova started something called Aqua Fit for people who wanted a “softer, safer” way to exercise. When her fitness company grew so big she could no longer manage it, she sold it and founded the Aquatics Exercise Association as a way to train more teachers how to use water. She later turned the AEA over to two trusted trainers, only to start ATRI several years later. Along the way, she’s written 15 books (and counting) and taught countless seminars and classes (she still teaches about once a week) all in the name of spreading the word about aquatic exercise and therapy.
“There are so many opportunities in aquatics, it just amazes me,” says the 57-year-old, who speaks with the patient voice of a teacher. “There’s a pandemic of obesity right now and people need to be active and the pool is such a fun place to be. And baby boomers — where else can we go but the pool? For me, anything else hurts.
“Aquatic therapy is growing very quickly because it’s more effective. People are able to regain normal functions quicker when they work in the water.”
But if the full potential of aquatic exercise and therapy is to be realized, Sova says the industry needs to work together more. Operators also need to understand that there’s more money to be made per lane with exercise and therapy than lap swimming. Recently, at her own community swimming pool, Sova and others had to fight just to get some morning aquatic exercise time.
“I think the message is still getting out,” she says. “Pool managers have come up through the ranks of the swimmers and they’re afraid to make lap swimmers angry.”
That’s why it’s so important for industry leaders to get together and compare notes, Sova says. “Unless we understand what other groups are doing, we can only aim people toward what we’re doing,” she says. “It’s like going to the grocery store and only going down one aisle and trying to get a balanced diet. It’s not going to work.”
As an example, she says, it makes no sense that swim coaches have their injured athletes doing land-based rehab rather than water-based. And now there’s a whole new group of professionals that need to be brought into the fold: physical therapists and doctors, who are increasingly turning to the water.
But even with the many issues aquatic exercise and therapy still must grapple with — safety, standards and education among them — Sova remains optimistic that like her own life in aquatics, things will happen naturally. “The water itself is going to do it,” she says. “That’s what’s happening in aquatic therapy. All they need to get is maybe two or three patients and when those patients go back to see the doctor, that’s all it takes. Because the water works miracles.”