Swim Toward Success

Growing Innovative Aquatic Programs


In recent years, many professionals in the aquatics industry—and other outside organizations—have been touting the importance of learn-to-swim programs, as early childhood swim lessons have been proven to reduce childhood drowning risk by 88 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unfortunately, more pools are closing as well, which means fewer opportunities for lessons in many locations.

USA Swimming is the national governing body for the sport of swimming in the United States. They've been tracking pool closures since 2008, and say the number exceeds 500. Some pools closed because they couldn't afford to upgrade to comply with new codes. But most closed simply because they were running at a deficit, and with ever-tightening budgets for cities and parks, pools are often on the chopping block. Operational costs keep rising, and programming income keeps shrinking. Therefore, aquatics facilities—both public and private—are exploring new types of programming to get people in the water and save those pools.

Julie See is director of education for the Aquatic Exercise Association (AEA), a not-for-profit educational organization committed to the advancement of aquatic fitness, health and wellness worldwide. She said they're seeing more facilities trying to expand aquatic programs in order to increase revenue generated by the pool. "Typically, if pools are only being used for recreation/open swim and swim lessons, it will be challenging to have a profitable pool," she said. "By offering shallow and deep water vertical exercise, along with other activities including water sports, scuba and snorkeling, kayak and canoe basics, and lifeguard training, then there is more potential for revenue. Some activities can be offered simultaneously without conflict—for example, shallow water exercise and scuba in the diving well."

Aquatics for Wellness

Sue Nelson has worked as a swim coach and aquatic fitness instructor, as well as running aquatic health and wellness centers and a pool supply company along with husband Mick. In 2004 she joined USA Swimming, specializing in program development and implementation along with facility design. She said it's extremely important for facilities to expand their programming. "I think the aquatic industry needs to evaluate what and how they operate to be sustainable," she said. "For the past 14 years we've been involved with creating a paradigm shift for the types of programs pools need to be offering, as well as pricing the programs. We hope management is looking at their bottom line and understand they must have certified professionals offering their programs before the community will pay, but they will."

Water exercise, fitness and therapy are all areas that are gaining momentum in aquatic facilities, which is not only good news for pool operators, but for the general public as well.

Water exercise, fitness and therapy are all areas that are gaining momentum in aquatic facilities, which is not only good news for pool operators, but for the general public as well. "Restructuring aquatic programs to be more fitness-related will have a huge impact on the health and wellness of our communities," said Nelson, who is disturbed by how many people live with chronic pain.

She pointed out that a lot of people who can't easily work out on land can do so in water without gravity, addressing all of the components of fitness. "We are seeing aquatic centers that have taken on the 'aquatic health club' model," she explained. "As we know, the cost of health care is rising every day; when aquatic centers develop programs that can make a difference in a person's health, we should all be ready to pay for those services."

See said that facilities sometimes ask AEA for advice when initiating water fitness programs, and she's encouraged to see a more diverse audience exploring aquatic programming. "In the U.S., still our biggest markets are seniors, including baby boomers. But with the innovations in programming, a wider range of people are trying water exercise."

See described how runners, who may have used water for rehab in the past, are now realizing that water is a great cross-training tool that allows them to maintain fitness levels and running performance with less stress to the body. "Younger individuals are open to aquatic programming, as long as the training format meets their needs," See said. "Even lap swimmers are looking for new ways to train that provide better muscle balance and less chance for repetitive stress injuries."

Programs such as aquatic aerobics, aqua yoga and water walking are becoming a part of the mainstream, and See pointed out that more specialized equipment is becoming available, which is great for attracting new markets, "from standup paddleboards for pools to aquatic poles that can be used alone or with additional attachments such as rubberized tubing and boxing bags, to mini trampolines, to three-dimensional drag equipment, whether handheld or attached to the ankles. Additionally, programming continues to explore more options: popular classes include high-intensity interval training, circuit training, martial arts, dance formats and balance-focused classes." See added how specialty populations are also being served, including those with arthritis, MS, etc.


When a facility does offer water fitness classes, they sometimes hire independent contractors to lead the classes. But more and more, facilities are providing training and certification opportunities for their own personnel. AEA offers a certification and numerous continuing education programs throughout the world, certifying more than 45,000 professionals internationally.

In Dallas, Texas, there are nearly 20 outdoor public pools, one indoor pool and one waterpark. Robin Steinshnider is the aquatic services manager for the city of Dallas, and she played a critical role in creating Dallas' Aquatics Masterplan. In addition to things like operational and maintenance concerns, the plan also addresses programming, and when it was recently updated, Steinshnider said they realized they weren't meeting the needs of today's users. "The plan makes recommendations, and mainly sets us up to have facilities that can be used in more ways than just the traditional lap swimming and swim lessons."

Water fitness offerings have proved popular in Dallas, including classes using floating fitness mats, which they tried at one location last summer and have expanded this year to other locations. "It's very popular. We tell people to get there early because they fill up pretty quick," said Steinshnider.

She added that they're big proponents of getting their own instructors trained in-house; providing "train the trainer" programs. "This summer we had our certified fitness staff work with seasonal staff from each of the outdoor locations and did an in-house training program so we could have water fitness classes at all of our locations."

More pools are also offering water safety training to the public, and Steinshnider said they have 12 lifeguard instructors on staff. "We do water safety instructor training and we do lifeguard training. We offer it to the public and for a reduced rate to our employees."

They've also had a local scuba group come and offer free demonstrations, trying to get more minority kids exposed to scuba diving, letting them try the equipment and swim along the side in the shallow end. "Just to show them what some of the opportunities might be if they were interested in pursuing that," said Steinshnider.

Partnerships Expand the Options

Sometimes cities will enter into a partnership with an outside entity to oversee their aquatic programming. In Burlingame, Calif., the Burlingame Aquatic Club (BAC) is a nonprofit organization that provides community programs on behalf of the city's parks and recreation department. The programs take place at the Burlingame Aquatic Center, located on a high school campus and featuring a 50-meter Olympic pool and a smaller warm-water training pool. BAC receives an annual subsidy from the city to help run the programs. BAC, the city and school district share facility costs at a predetermined percentage, based on pool use and lane allocations for each agency's programs. BAC also rents pool time from another high school for their water polo program.

"Our partnership with the city has allowed us to offer a wider variety of programs that serve a broader audience," said Sylvia Lam, executive director at BAC. "The greatest benefit is serving the community by providing excellent aquatic opportunities." According to Lam, these programs include swim lessons, lap swim, open rec swim, water aerobics, American Red Cross classes, camps, pool parties and community events such as the annual in-water Spring Egg Hunt.


Lam said their water aerobics class offers a full-body, low-impact workout in shallow water. "Our year-round class is Energizer Aerobics, but we also offer specialty classes such as Aqua Yoga, Deep Water H2O Core and more."

She added that their lifeguard certification classes are very popular, often having a waiting list. "These classes are a great way to recruit new staff and build connections within the industry."

Their swim school includes group, private and semi-private lessons for all ages, as well as lessons for kids and adults with special needs. Their scholarship fund provides financial aid, and they host several fundraisers a year and also receive private donations. USA Swimming Foundation recently awarded them a grant to provide free swim lessons to 30 children.

Pool parties take place during summer months in Burlingame, with packages including pool access, a private cabana, dedicated lifeguards and a pool party host to assist with food and games. "They are very popular and a great way for people to get to know our facility, staff and program offerings," Lam said.

BAC also offers competitive programming. "The head coach of our Masters program, Cesar Valera, is a former professional triathlete and helps make the program welcoming for new swimmers while also challenging competitive and former competitive swimmers," Lam said.

Their water polo program starts with introducing young players to the sport with their Splashball program, with graduates moving on to their coed team and then on to the high school teams. "Last summer we had three teams qualify for National Junior Olympics. We also offer a Masters water polo program for players 18-years plus," said Lam.

The BAC Swim Team has more than 200 swimmers who participate in local, state and national events. "We have a large showing at National Junior Olympics, Junior Nationals and National Championships. On average, 50 percent of our graduating seniors go on to swim for a four-year college," Lam said. "The competitive success of our teams shows that you can offer a wide variety of programs and still be an expert in your field."

College Aquatics Boosts Recruitment

More colleges and universities are adding state-of-the-art aquatic facilities, which can help recruit prospective students. Therefore they need to find programming that keeps that demographic coming back to the pool. North Dakota State University (NDSU) in Fargo unveiled an aquatic addition to their Wellness Center in 2016. The two pool enclosures feature a six-lane 25-yard competitive-style lap pool and a 50,000-gallon leisure pool that is mostly 3.5-feet deep. The leisure pool has volleyball and basketball always set up for play, along with a flowing current that students and members love to swim against and with, or just grab a noodle and float around in, according to Ryan MacMaster, assistant director of operations and aquatics. There's also a 5,000-gallon hot tub. "Our aquatic facility had students who sat on the design committee, and the main focus was having something for everyone, even if they didn't enjoy swimming," MacMaster said. This includes a sauna and an on-deck open-flame fire pit with comfortable seating.

One big success in the new pools has been the night swim, taking place four nights a week from 9:00 to 10:30. "We turn off the overhead lights and only run the underwater lighting system and the LED deck lights to provide a fun, unique aquatic experience," MacMaster said. "Sunrise swim is a spin-off of night swim to provide a relaxing morning swim time that also has the reduced lighting." He said this is also popular, pointing out that they always add extra lifeguard staff for their programs to ensure safety.


Floaty Night at NDSU is a fun social event that MacMaster said is wildly popular, drawing a couple hundred guests. "We throw a bunch of large inflatables in the pool such as giant flamingos, unicorns and rubber duckies. We put in as many floaties as we can while still being able to maintain a visual of the bottom of the pools."

They also offer dive-in movie nights and are looking to experiment with other events like log-rolling.

Canoe Battleship is another extremely popular event, according to MacMaster, offered as a one-day tournament each semester, along with offering it as a special event for campus groups like Resident's Life, fraternities and sororities. "We put 14-foot plastic canoes that seat three in the pool. The goal is to sink the other canoes first in a last-man-standing competition. Many of the teams dress up for the event and have unique team names."

MacMaster, a Red Cross training instructor, said their Red Cross CPR program is very popular, usually with a waitlist. They also employ their own water fitness instructor, with the most popular exercise classes being paddleboard yoga and paddleboard fitness. "These are drop-in style, and there's usually a line 20 minutes prior to class waiting to get a spot," MacMaster said.

Since NDSU doesn't have a swim team yet, MacMaster said they're trying a new program, Swim Masters, which provides a "swim-team style" but more fun and social workout environment to students who want to stay in swimming shape. "This has been popular in its first few weeks, and we're hoping the word gets out across campus." Scuba classes are offered as well, contracted through a local dive shop that provides all the gear along with a certified instructor.

Swim lessons are also offered, and the Swim Train program features one-on-one lessons based on a participant's goals, whether they've never learned to swim or they want to cross-train for a marathon. "Learn-To" nights feature a different topic each session, and are free to the first 20 students, for those who maybe can't afford private lessons or prefer to learn in a group. Lessons are also offered to the youth of the NDSU community.

YMCAs at the Forefront

YMCAs have always been a place where communities can find learn-to-swim programs or just simply go swimming. But they've also been updating facilities and offering more diverse programming to keep their patrons engaged. The YMCA of Springfield, Ill., has two locations, each with two pools. Their downtown location features a four-lane, 25-yard pool and a 20-by-30-foot instructional pool for preschoolers and babies. Their second branch features a warm-water rec pool with three lanes, a current river, jet area with bench and zero-depth play area. The second pool is an eight-lane competition pool. They also contract a park district pool for summer use by their swim team, according to Tara Bosaw, aquatics director for the downtown branch.

Programs such as aquatic aerobics, aqua yoga and water walking are becoming a part of the mainstream.

Bosaw said they offer many types of lessons, for 6-month-olds through seniors. "We get a lot of adults in our group lesson program, but also see quite a few who sign up for private lessons. We also offer an adaptive program for people with diversabilities."

She said their special needs program has expanded multiple times. "It started off as a one-day-a-week program for an hour and has grown to become five small group lesson offerings three-days-a-week, one-on-one lessons at a reduced rate as their schedule allows and a Special Olympics swim team."

The Springfield Ys offer lifeguard training, and Bosaw said they train their fitness instructors in-house. "Our water fitness classes have become incredibly popular. Last year we were averaging about eight participants in our evening classes and this year it's 18."

They also hold special events like Swim with Santa and Swim with a Mermaid. "For these two-hour events we do a craft/activity while the kids take pictures with the mermaid or Santa, and then we go into the pool and splash around." Bosaw said these events also draw a lot of non-members, and they're looking to add more seasonal events like a floating pumpkin patch, Easter egg hunts and dying the pool green.

Bosaw explained how they frequently network. "We're able to get together with other Ys at least twice a year at our neighborhood meetings and have breakout sessions where all the aquatic directors get together to discuss what's going on at each association. We also make a lot of connections through trainings, and we have a Facebook group entirely dedicated to YMCA Aquatic Directors."

Bosaw believes that while learning how to swim and keeping people safe around water will always be a staple of aquatics facilities, it's important to listen to your member base to see what they might like to see happening. "We make sure to update our current programming as needed, and anytime something new comes along we take a look to see if it would work for us."

In fact, Bosaw said they're looking into obtaining an inflatable obstacle course, which some facilities use for special events, sometimes charging an additional fee. Lam said they occasionally utilize inflatables for parties, rec swim or team events. Steinshnider explained that they use them at their older pools that have fewer amenities. "We promote that we'll be offering the obstacle course at this location on this date to bring a variety of activities to different pools and also to get people to different parts of town to visit the pools."

Special Events

Other special events in Dallas include dive-in movie nights, taking place every other Friday and rotating around town. "We went ahead and bought all our own equipment; we have the inflatable screen, the rear projector and the sound system," Steinshnider said.

The annual cardboard boat race also rotates locations. The popular event is promoted all summer, and teams create themes and wear costumes, vying for awards like team spirit, creativity and fastest boat. One location is also chosen for the popular dog swim event, which Steinshnider jokes is rather messy, but it happens at season's end when the pool would be drained anyway.

Steinshnider said they're also trying log-rolling events. A company that specializes in it came out and trained pool staff, and they rotated the logs to different pools on different days with staff showing kids and adults how it was done. "Hopefully we can grow it into more of a regular program where we can possibly have some competitions," said Steinshnider.

Renting pool space for private events can also be a great revenue generator, and Steinshnider said their pools are available to rent any time they're not open to the public. "We see a lot of back-to-school and end-of-school parties, and some people rent them out for birthday parties or neighborhood association events."

Bosaw said they also do rentals and birthday parties at the Y.

Better All the Time

Water therapy is another area that's growing, whether it's therapy for injuries or for populations who are physically or developmentally disabled. There are specializations, classes and certifications that are specific to specific diagnoses, such as autism. USA Swimming Foundation has an online course named Children with Challenges, and the Aquatic Therapy and Rehab Institute offers training and certification programs.

Sometimes therapists will rent pool space to work with clients. "This type of partnership is a good one," Nelson said. "It provides income for the aquatic center, and the therapist doesn't have to build a pool, which they have no idea how to operate." But water temperature, depth and access are major considerations.

In fact, as pool programming evolves, aquatic facility designs will need to stay in step. Nelson said that "programming precedes design" is their prime directive. "The professionals in design that we work with all understand programming precedes design, and they help educate their clients to this method."


She explained that new aquatic center models feature multiple pools since different user-groups prefer different water temps and depth.

Nelson added that learn-to-swim programs are still the main pillar for any aquatic center. "This service is not only fun but is saving lives. Learn-to-swim programs are starting to market what we call the dry side and wet side." Dallas is doing just that, with Steinshnider telling us they present water safety education in the schools, typically in spring when summer's approaching. "We have a really strong school program; we award between 500 and 800 scholarships per year for free swim lessons, promoting that at the same time when we're out there."

She also said that they're adding newer amenities to their older pools such as climbing walls, diving boards, basketball hoops, lazy rivers, waterslides and interactive play areas, and it's attracting more people, therefore bringing them a new audience for their swim programs.

Lam said that diverse programming makes the pool more accessible to the community. "Everyone has a different reason for visiting the pool, whether it's for fitness, recreation, social reasons or all of the above. The more you offer, the more likely you can meet the needs of your community."

MacMaster agrees: "The most important thing is creating different programs to include as many people as possible over a wide range of backgrounds." He feels it's important to attend conferences and read publications to stay on top of the current trends, and listen to your patrons. He also believes that an organized facility and great customer service are crucial. "When you and your staff show tons of enthusiasm toward your programs, the members pick up on that and have fun also."