Feature Article - January 2011
Find a printable version here

Taking the Plunge

Saving Facilities and Lives Through Smarter Aquatic Programming

By Kelli Anderson


Pillars of Wisdom

What Nelson advocates in his own business, and that of others who attend his conferences around the country each year, is a concept of predictable programming based on four pillars: learning to swim; adult aquatic exercise; aquatic rehabilitation; and competitive swimming.

"It's a natural progression," Nelson explained of the programming strategy. "Kids learn to swim and want to try it as a sport. The pool is there, the hours that competitive swimming runs are very cooperative with other programming, so it's a natural outcropping. Then, once you have aquatic exercise, adult programming follows with masters swimming and vertical swim because you've already built the base. It won't happen in a summer, but if you market it right, the culture of health and wellness in the water will demand some kind of competitive swimming exercise after that."

According to Nelson, learning to swim is the most fundamental pillar but unfortunately, also the most deficient. Given that all other programs are built on this foundation, it is no surprise that if it isn't done well, all other programs will suffer as a result. "We still have 10 kids dying every week in the USA because of drowning that's preventable," Nelson said. "Learning to swim is extremely important. All else is a byproduct of learning to swim."

Practically speaking, where Nelson sees most facilities falling short is in spending too little money on staff development, certification and marketing to the general public. When this is done well, however, tiered programs can comprise the bulk of the budget, allowing the aquatic facility to further develop other program options, spend more money on staff, and to plan accordingly.

Intelligent Design

The best planning, of course, happens before a single stone is laid. In the past, programs were designed around the limitations of a single large pool and the few activities we once imagined they were for (think: laps, lessons and little else). Today, pools need to be designed around a much broader scope of programming that requires multiple pools, multiple depths and multiple temperatures.

"Our facility was built in '96 during the height of the Summer Olympics in Georgia," said Misty Selph, facilities manager of the recently renovated Chatham County Aquatic Center in Savannah, Ga. "It was originally built for swim teams, but we should have thought more about the long term and not just immediate in order to draw more people to our facility."

Although the Chatham County Aquatic Center has since made changes that have allowed it to expand programming far beyond swim teams, the center's experience speaks volumes about the importance of designing for the longterm.

Advocates of sustainable pool design recommend a minimum of two pools and, optimally, three. With different temperatures and different depths to accommodate different learners and their needs, a main pool can be primarily used for lap swimming. A second, smaller and warmer pool is ideal for high-intensity aerobics and adult exercise, such as programs for senior citizens. If budget and space allow, a third pool can be used for special needs and aquatic rehabilitation. With these multiple spaces, programming can expand far beyond the boxy confines of the traditional model.