Last summer, things were looking good for aquatics. Thanks to Michael Phelps’ eight golden victories, swim
programs and aquatics facilities everywhere enjoyed a major
“Since the Olympics, USA Swimming has seen a strong growth in
membership,” says Karen Linhart, media relations manager of
the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based organization. “As of
November 2008, we had 20,000 year-round members more than we did in
But after the crowds left Beijing, the economic recession hit hard
and the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act took effect. Today, both
issues pose serious challenges to many aquatics operators and, as a
result, many of the programs that utilize those pools are
scrambling to weather the storm. With their livelihoods in
jeopardy, coaches and program operators across the nation are
seeking alternatives to continue riding the wave that Phelps
For many, budget cuts have been the biggest stumbling block.
“All school systems are feeling the effects of the
economy,” said Stacy MacMillan, swim coach at Middletown High School in Middletown, Md.
She’s seen the effects first-hand. In January,
Maryland’s Frederick County Board of Education proposed
closing pools and eliminating varsity swim programs, including the
one at MHS. The cuts could have eliminated the sport of swimming
from state-level competition, noted MacMillan, also a member of the
Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association.
As a result, concerned swimmers, parents and others launched a
successful campaign, focusing on the reasons for keeping pools open
and convincing the school board to find alternatives.
“The most important reason for keeping the pools open is
certainly giving the kids a place to learn to swim and be
comfortable in the water, but swimming as a sport has grown
considerably. By eliminating the teams, it would have lost that
momentum,” MacMillan said.
When push comes to shove, competitive programs have been
challenged, but it’s the recreation and instructional
programs that may be in the greatest danger.
“I’ve heard of more than one university that has closed
pools to all use except swim teams. Teams weren’t cut, but
instructional and recreational programs were,” said Tom
Griffiths, director of the Aquatics and Safety Office for Athletics
at Penn State University in State College, Pa., and
founder of the Aquatics Safety Research
Meanwhile, the federal Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety
Act is adding to the headaches. For many school swim teams, the
season was already under way when legislation took effect Dec. 19,
2008, and many noncompliant pools closed their doors. Pools that
have since come into compliance have reopened, or soon will, but
others may be shut for good.
Either way, that’s left many aquatics programs using
noncompliant pools scrambling for alternatives. Some displaced
teams have had to rent time at other pools, which could mean less
practice, additional travel and altered competition
“It’s had a huge impact on our program. We
weren’t able to swim in our own pool after Dec. 19,”
said Karen Keough-Huff, athletic director at Amherst Regional High
School in Amherst, Mass. Retrofit work on the pool began in
early January, but with a month or so left in their season,
swimmers were forced to find another pool for practice. The
disruption impacted training to such a degree that Keough-Huff said
the usually strong ARHS team ended the season in less than top
At least 10 swim teams in El Paso, Texas, also were caught in the
middle when their pools did not meet the VGB Act deadline. But
officials there came up with an arrangement allowing them to
practice as usual, until required upgrades were completed —
parents of all swimmers were required to sign waivers.
Ken Owen, athletics director of the El Paso Independent School District, said
parents did not “balk” at the decision.
“They’ve been swimming in those same pools for
years,” Owen said, echoing response from parents. “With
competitive swimming, someone’s watching what you’re
doing. There’s no playing around at the bottom of the