Begin With the Basics & Build

Aquatic Programming 101


Team USA enjoyed much success at this year's Olympic Games in Rio, with USA Swimming being particularly dominant, winning 33 medals—16 of them gold. And, though they were led by superstars Michael Phelps and 19-year-old Katie Ledecky, a crop of other young swimmers also shared the spotlight. In addition, for the first time in Women's Water Polo history, the United States won gold for the second straight Olympics. These impressive accomplishments will prove to be a shot in the arm for swimming programs nationwide. As the USA Swimming website declares, "When our elite athletes are successful in fulfilling their Olympic dreams, our society benefits from the inspiration these athletes give us."

In the Swim

USA Swimming is the national governing body for the sport of swimming in the United States, promoting the culture of swimming by creating opportunities for swimmers and coaches of all backgrounds through clubs, events and education. But while they're responsible for selecting and training teams for international competition, including the Olympics, they have much broader aspirations, striving to increase their nearly 400,000-strong membership in order to share the sport of swimming with as many people as possible. "The base of our sport is these Olympic athletes and these elite athletes, but that's really just 1 percent at the top of our triangle," said Mariejo Truex, director of programs and services at USA Swimming.

The Make a Splash initiative is the USA Swimming Foundation's water safety campaign, which partners the Foundation with learn-to-swim providers and water safety advocates aiming to provide the opportunity for every child in America to learn to swim. The Foundation has invested millions of dollars to provide grants to qualified learn-to-swim programs. To date, more than 3.4 million children have received swim lessons through the USA Swimming Foundation's Make a Splash Local Partner Network, made up of nearly 700 qualified lesson providers nationwide.


In 2014, USA Swimming partnered with nine other leading organizations within the swimming industry to launch SwimToday, which Truex describes as their "big marketing campaign umbrella," as a way of promoting and growing the sport. Nearly 80 percent of families don't consider continuing the sport of swimming after their child has completed swim lessons, but the parents of kids who do join swim teams quickly see the benefits, such as building self-confidence and focus.

One of the partners in the SwimToday campaign is the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF), whose mission is to help people lead healthier lives. "We believe we can make a difference by encouraging more aquatic activity, keeping pools safer and keeping pools open. As a nonprofit, proceeds go to fund research and to help create swimmers," said NSPF's Chief Marketing and Information Officer Alex Antoniou. They offer books and online courses, create training programs, and organize conferences. They've provided more than $4 million in grants that have had an impact on policies and practices worldwide.

Regarding how facilities can maintain successful learn-to-swim programs, Antoniou points out that there are two levels of customers to target: those who need to learn how to swim and those who already can swim, so that they'll continue participating. "When done correctly, learn-to-swim programs can be big money-makers for facilities. Even scuba diving shops are tapping into this market, and taking advantage of the swimming pool they have that would normally sit empty during the day and most evenings," he said.

NSPF promotes the Step Into Swim campaign, which aims to create 1 million more swimmers over a 10-year period, including those who can't afford to learn the skill. One hundred percent of the proceeds the initiative raises goes toward children and adults learning to swim, which includes not only providing lessons at reputable facilities, but also supplying swim suits, caps and even transportation. So far, the program has donated more than $300,000 to learn-to-swim programs across the country.


Antoniou thinks getting kids in the pool is pretty fundamental. "First and foremost, learning how to swim at an early age greatly reduces the risk of drowning." Every day, about 10 people die from drowning, three of them children. It's the leading cause of injury-related death for children ages 1 to 4, and the second leading cause among those aged 1 to 14. Participation in formal swim lessons can reduce the likelihood of childhood drowning by 88 percent.

In 1914 the Red Cross Life Saving Corps was formed, and in the past century, accidental drowning deaths are down nearly 90 percent. Today, the American Red Cross Aquatics program reaches millions of Americans through its innovative water safety resources, recommending that everyone learn to perform critical water safety skills, including the ability to:

  • Step or jump into the water over your head.
  • Return to the surface and float or tread water for one minute.
  • Rotate in a full circle and find an exit.
  • Swim 25 yards to the exit.
  • Exit from the water. If in a pool, be able to exit without using the ladder.

Nichole Steffens, national aquatics product manager for the Red Cross, believes that swimming is a life skill everyone should have. "Learning to swim means much more than learning strokes. It's learning water survival skills, water safety and developing comfort in the water."

She explained how in 2014, the Red Cross launched its Aquatics Centennial Campaign in honor of 100 years of drowning prevention, with the goal of reducing the drowning rate in 50 communities where those rates are high. They're doing so by teaching an additional 50,000 children and adults to swim and learn water safety, serving families who may otherwise not be able to participate by making more lessons and training available at significantly reduced costs. Plus, they're training more swim instructors and lifeguards, as well as teaching parents and caregivers water safety and pediatric CPR.


Steffens said the Red Cross' Learn-to-Swim program has something for everyone, offering parent-and-child aquatics for kids aged 6 months to 3 years, preschool classes for ages 3 to 5, six levels of learn-to-swim classes for youths 6 years and older, and three adult levels for beginners through fitness swimmers. Around 10 percent of the 2.5 million people who enroll in Red Cross Learn-to-Swim programs each year are adults. "We're seeing more parents and caregivers participating in the adult classes each year," Steffens said.

The Red Cross also offers a variety of aquatic training programs. There's a junior lifeguarding program for youths ages 11 to 15, and for those 15 and older there's a lifeguarding program focused on gaining the skills required to become a professional rescuer, which includes learning First Aid and professional-level CPR, and has specialty modules for those wishing to work at waterparks, waterfronts or facilities with aquatic attractions.

Red Cross swim instructor programs include Basic Swim Instructor (BSI) and Water Safety Instructor (WSI), designed for those aged 16 and older who wish to teach swimming and water safety skills. BSIs are certified to teach fundamental aquatic courses and WSIs are certified to teach fundamental and advanced courses, and both are certified to give water safety presentations.

Steffens said that the Learn-to-Swim programs help kids gain the swimming skills that allow them to transition into many other aquatic endeavors. "It's a natural progression for youths who have an interest in competitive swimming." And though there are typically fees for lessons which are set by the providers, many providers do offer scholarships, and families needing assistance should inquire at their local aquatic facility. The programs are delivered through authorized training partners such as parks and recreation departments, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, colleges and universities, and YMCAs.

YMCA Leads the Way

The first YMCA was founded in Boston in 1851 through the efforts of Thomas Sullivan, a retired sea captain. In 1885 the first YMCA swimming pool—called a "swimming bath"—was built in the Brooklyn Center YMCA, measuring 45 feet long, 15 feet wide, and 5 feet deep. By year's end there were 17 Y pools in existence, and 100 by 1900, though the medical profession considered them a health menace as they had no chlorination or filtration. In 1923, the first YMCA National Swimming Championships were held at the Brooklyn Center pool.

Today, YMCAs across the country offer swim lessons for all ages, as well as family swim, competitive swimming and diving teams, and many kinds of adaptive swim programs for those with special needs. More than 1 million kids take swim lessons at the Y each year. YMCA Senior Manager of Aquatics Lindsay Mondick said, "At the YMCA, we consider ourselves America's swim instructor."

In 2016 the Y will award more than 18,000 scholarships for free water safety lessons to kids from underserved communities as part of their Safety Around Water Program, with an emphasis on reaching at-risk African-American and Hispanic/Latino children. Some 70 percent of African-American and 60 percent of Hispanic kids can't swim, compared to just 40 percent of Caucasian kids, with African-American kids aged 5 to 14 being three times more likely to drown than their peers. Plus, 88 percent of kids who drown do so under adult supervision, and 60 percent of victims are within 10 feet of safety.


The Safety Around Water Program teaches two key swimming survival skills, including the "Jump, Push, Turn and Grab" technique which teaches kids to calmly orient themselves if they fall into water. The "Swim, Float, Swim" technique instructs them to take breaks when swimming to safety by floating on their back to avoid overexertion. Tia Scaletta, aquatics manager at the Taylor YMCA in Elgin, Ill., said their facility is starting to utilize the Safety Around Water Program, plus they teach the "Jump, Float, and Yell for Help" safety method to aid a child who has fallen in water and cannot swim or touch bottom.

Scaletta said the parent/child class (kids ages 6 months to 3 years) is currently quite popular. "These classes are so much fun—they teach the little ones ways of the water through songs and games. We also have a large turnout for both preschool and youth lessons in the fall, spring and summer." Additionally, they have Red Cross trainers on staff and provide lifeguard training.

Kids can use the skills learned in the pool not just at pool parties, but for swimming in the lake or ocean as well, and once they're older they understand that swimming isn't just fun, it's a great way to stay in shape, according to Scaletta. "After basic lessons they have the opportunity to join a swim team," she added, "which helps them grow as individuals by teaching them structure, teamwork, good sportsmanship and accomplishment, which they may not have the opportunity to learn elsewhere." And while not all YMCAs offer competitive swimming, the Taylor facility does have a competitive team—The Pelicans—split into different skill levels and age groups, who compete against other Y teams and the occasional country club team.

The Taylor Y also offers adult swim lessons, and many of those signing up have a child already in the program. Scaletta said some are just looking to become more comfortable in the water, while others come out of it knowing every competitive stroke, but either way they're setting a great example for their children.

Old(er) Dogs, New Tricks

In fact, while there are more than 18 million swimming pools and hot tubs in the United States, 37 percent of American adults cannot swim the length of a pool, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Research also shows that children of adults who can't swim are at a greater risk of not learning to swim. To address this problem, U.S. Masters Swimming (USMS) and the Swimming Saves Lives (SSL) foundation launched the inaugural April is Adult Learn-to-Swim Month campaign in 2013, which encourages their 1,500-plus clubs and workout groups to offer swim lessons for adults. In 2015, they launched their Adult Learn-to-Swim Instructor Certification Program, which trains adults to teach adults to swim and be safer in and around water. The SSL foundation provides grants to programs offering adult swim lessons, distributing close to $100,000 in 2016.

USMS promotes health, wellness, fitness and competition for adults through swimming. More than 65,000 men and women ages 18 to 100 are members nationwide.


Bill Brenner, education director at USMS, explained that their members have varying skill levels and goals. "Some are highly competitive, while others swim for fun or fitness."

Brenner said that many members do swim in local, regional, national and world swimming events—both in the pool and open water—with more than 1,500 adult swim clubs nationwide participating in USMS-sanctioned events. Individuals swim by gender and age, generally organized in five-year increments. Relay opportunities are also offered at most events.

As far as having a successful masters swimming program or adult learn-to-swim program, Brenner believes the key is having definitive leadership. "Having a masters coach lead workouts and practices provides the secret sauce to why a masters program grows, by attracting new members and retaining existing ones," he said. He added that an engaged coach can help meet the needs and goals of the swimmer while still keeping it fun. "Not every swimmer can get faster, but they can get better with proper stroke technique and a commitment to the sport."

Beyond Swimming


USA Water Polo (USAWP) is the national governing body for water polo in America, overseeing the Olympic Water Polo program and boasting 45,000 members and nearly 500 club programs nationwide. Christy Medigovich, director of membership development at USAWP, said they're focused on providing affordable entry to the sport to engage new members. "Combined with the low-cost membership, we work with local and regional clubs and members to offer more play opportunities in their zones. In addition, we offer National Championship events, which consist of upwards of 600-plus teams. Our thriving Olympic Development Program offers a variety of training opportunities to USAWP athletes as well."

Splashball, offered at many clubs and multipurpose organizations, is designed to introduce water polo to kids aged 5 to 9, providing basic skills and understanding of the sport. It combines fun, water safety and teamwork, and motivates kids to swim and stay fit. And Masters Water Polo is for those 20 to 70 and up, offering a variety of play opportunities at varying skill levels. Among many other events, there's the USA Water Polo Masters Nationals Championship. Medigovich points out that some masters are first-time learners, while others are former national team members.

Inclusion Matters

Through the years, some have held the notion that organized swimming was geared toward more affluent participants. These days, many in the swimming industry are working to dispel that perception. At USA Swimming, one of Truex' areas of responsibility is Diversity and Inclusion, with staff focused on trying to bring their membership numbers around to reflect more of that. "It's a pretty lofty goal," she admitted, "It'll probably take a couple of decades to actually see that."

Some of the ways USA Swimming is working to become more diverse include their Outreach Membership program, offering qualified individuals the chance to become athlete members at a greatly reduced fee, with the goal of providing opportunities in swimming to economically disadvantaged youth. In 2014 they partnered with the New York City Parks and Recreation Department and Metropolitan Swimming to create a multi-level swimming program to provide enhanced competitive opportunities and services to Outreach athletes, their coaches and teams. USA Swimming is looking to expand these programs to other cities as well, with their Community Swim Team Partnership Program.


Catch the Spirit Camps are a great way for swimmers to gain local camp experience, with Local Swim Committees running the events with support from USA Swimming. Athletes may be selected to move on to Zone Diversity Select Camps and finally the National Diversity Select Camp, which is USA Swimming's premier camp aimed at diverse athletes, with swimmers training at the U.S. Olympic Training Center with other top swimmers across the nation.

Recently, the Diversity and Inclusion team at USA Swimming released the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer (LGBTQ) Cultural Inclusion Resource Guide, to help coaches, parents and clubs provide a safe and inclusive environment for all athletes. It's the third in a series of Cultural Inclusion guides, with an African-American and Hispanic/Latino guide being previously released, and a guide for Asian-American and Native American communities coming soon, with the aim of improving representation at all levels of the sport.

Everyone agreed that after the Olympic Games, their aquatic programs enjoy a spike in interest, as evidenced by membership numbers, website statistics and social media. Scaletta from the YMCA sums it up this way: "I love the enthusiasm of a new swimmer as well as our returning swimmers who've just watched the Olympics. They walk right in with their new team suit, goggles and cap, and state in a very serious tone that they're ready, and they will be the next Michael Phelps!"