Feature Article - January 2008
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Aquatic Programming Gets Back to Basics

By Emily Tipping

ost of the Earth is covered by water, and water makes up a large percentage of our bodies. Is it any wonder, then, that we are drawn to water? There's nothing like jumping into a pool on a hot summer day, or dipping into a hot tub to relax after a grueling workout. These activities are nothing new—people have been coming to the water for fitness, fun and relaxation for centuries.

"Aquatics is a lifelong activity that promotes health and wellness," said Mick Nelson, club facilities development director for USA Swimming, the national governing body for the sport of swimming.

Unfortunately, along with the fun and the health benefits of swimming, there is a cost, as drowning remains one of the leading causes of death around the world. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), an average of nine people died in the United States every day in 2004 due to unintentional fatal drownings, and that does not include fatalities due to boating-related incidents. In that same year, of all children between the ages of 1 and 4 who died, more than a quarter died due to drowning, and fatal drowning remains the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death for all children between 1 and 14 years old.

Those are heavy costs, but there are other costs to our love for water as well, and these costs come in real dollar amounts. Among recreational facilities, pools and aquatic centers boast some of the highest operating costs, and many municipalities and other entities have been looking for ways to increase these facilities' revenue to bring more money back from these heavy investments of mostly public dollars.

"There's definitely a huge movement toward the indoor and outdoor leisure pool right now, and it's based on agencies believing there's an ability to turn a profit," said Jim Wheeler, aquatics director for the City of Oakland, Calif., and a past masters swimming coach. He cited an example of a facility in California that built a beautiful 50-meter pool alongside a leisure pool, hoping the leisure pool would help pay for the more traditional pool. But, he explained, "you have to have a pretty large multi-use leisure facility to offset the expenses of a typical pool."

Despite the push toward leisure pools, many parks and recreation districts, school districts and other entities that operate aquatic facilities are stuck with what they've got, and often what they've got are aging, traditional pools. Building a new facility takes a fairly hefty investment, but there are ways to improve your aging facility, according to Randy Mendioroz, principal with Aquatic Design Group, a San Diego, Calif.-based aquatic design firm that has worked on both recreational and competition-style pools for facilities of all types. From a competitive standpoint, if you have an older pool, you likely need to make it deeper to comply with updated standards. But unfortunately, going deeper is difficult—and expensive.

"When it comes to recreation, it's a lot easier," he explained. "You can add things like waterslides, which only require 3 1/2 feet of water. You can add inflatables, which can be anchored to the pool floor. If it's a wading pool, there are some things you can do with soft foam slides. If the code allows, there are things you can do with water sprays, though I rarely recommend those in pools that are deeper than 2 feet, because it becomes difficult for the lifeguards to see when you ripple the water surface."

Unfortunately, in the push to improve pool revenues, some of the more traditional pool programming is getting forgotten—programming that really makes a difference in people's lives. An attitude adjustment on the part of the municipality or facility may be required. If you want to serve a mission, you may have to accept that your aquatic facility is not going to be a big money-maker. Wheeler explained that Oakland's seven public pools are heavily subsidized, "but the payoff is that the citizens get access to these programs that really make a difference in their lives. We offer basic swim lessons, recreational swim teams, lap swim, public swim, water exercise and then maybe a junior guard program, but not a lot more, because we felt the basics are important to cover. We don't have a lot of bells and whistles."