Last summer, things were looking good for aquatics. Thanks to Michael Phelps’ eight golden victories, swim programs and aquatics facilities everywhere enjoyed a major boost.
“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 2007.”
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 inspired.
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 Group.
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 schedules.
“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 form.
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 pool.”