Feature Article - January 2008
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Aquatic Programming Gets Back to Basics

By Emily Tipping

Start at the Beginning

At AquaChamps Swim School, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the mission is all about helping people find success through the mind—and through swimming. The newly renamed school (formerly the Jack Nelson Swim School) was founded by legendary U.S. Olympic swimmer and coach Jack Nelson, and recently moved from its home at the Swimming Hall of Fame to a new facility in Wilton Manors. In its 50-odd years of operation, AquaChamps has taught around a million kids and adults to swim, from 3-month-olds to 100-year-olds, said Dan Vawter, head coach of the swim school.

One of the reasons the swim school opened the new location, Vawter said, was due to a growing focus on dollar signs, which he said conflicted with the school's ability to meet its mission. "When you get a new breed of leaders, it's sometimes difficult for them to understand the tradition. The idea becomes about the dollar rather than the person coming to the facility," Vawter said. "We had a great history there, but our programming has grown, and the opportunity presented itself. It was a chance to do something on our own and be dependent on ourselves."

In Broward County, AquaChamps is serving a big need, helping address the risks inherent in such a watery landscape. The county has more than 300 miles of navigable waterways, 24 miles of beachfront and more than a half-million pools. Teaching kids and adults to swim helps reduce the risk of drowning.

Vawter emphasized that it's important not to mislead parents by using terms like "drown-proofing." "There's no such thing," he said, explaining that such terminology causes parents to let their guard down around the water. "The number-one thing about being safe is being attentive and understanding how to avoid an accident—being proactive rather than reactive," Vawter said. "We keep it basic to help parents and the children get into the water and be safe. We want them to be able to enjoy everything the water offers recreationally. It's not just about swimming, but things like water sports as well, which are a great opportunity for bonding."

In addition to making kids and adults safer in and out of the water, swim lessons can do their part to help support a facility. According to Feris, one of the Keller ISD Natatorium's most successful programs is swim lessons, and the facility did more than 10,000 lessons in its first four years of operation.

"I consider us to be one of the most successful swim lesson schools in the county," he said, adding that this success is not due to charging the highest amount possible for lessons. "What we've tried to do is offer a program that virtually everyone can afford," he explained. "We could set a higher price, but one of my goals when I came to Keller was I wanted every single child and adult, if there was a want or a way, for them to take a lesson and for every child to know how to swim. By setting a very fair, marketable price, we've proven that we can make a difference in parents' lives and in the lives of children. It doesn't have to be for the finite few who can afford it."

Despite the fact that the facility does not charge a premium for its lessons, Feris added that the lessons are one of the facility's biggest revenue sources, paying for nearly 25 percent of the natatorium's $700,000 annual operating budget.

Some of the main challenges associated with offering swim lessons, according to Nelson of USA Swimming, are "finding staff that is properly certified; tracking and reporting outcomes; and making sure participants understand aquatic progression and that there is more to learn-to-swim than just a set of lessons."