Feature Article - January 2009
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A Growing Wave

Reaching Diverse Audiences With Aquatic Programming

By Hayli Morrison


hen U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps clinched his 14th career gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in August, his name was firmly rooted in history and in the minds of aspiring young swimmers across America. The Olympic champion met face-to-face with his fans in subsequent public appearances at locations like the McBurney YMCA in New York City, where he presented a grant to enhance the YMCA's citywide swim programs.

The success of Phelps and his Olympic teammates immediately bolstered interest in the swimming sport among adults and children alike. It's a phenomenon seen after each Summer Olympics, but even more so this year with the involvement of such a high-profile athlete as Phelps, according to Kay Smiley, aquatic specialist for YMCA of the USA.

"I was talking to a swim teacher the other day who said she was just walking into church and got absolutely bombarded with parents saying, 'My child wants to learn to swim. What do I need to do?'" Smiley recalled.

It is the kind of momentum boost that aquatics facility managers dream of. However, the long-term challenge facing programming managers is how to keep the momentum strong. This can prove difficult in a society full of increasingly busy, overextended families. But with U.S. children watching television an average of two to three hours each day—which can be linked to childhood obesity, attention deficit disorder and a host of other afflictions—it is more important than ever to get kids off the couch and into the pool. Aquatics facilities and programming have both become key tools of exercise, entertainment, marketing and even community enhancement.

"Swimming is a life skill, and we need to get kids in the water and get them interested in it. We have to get them excited to be in the water and have something they want to do, like go down the waterslide," said Kevin Post, project manager for Counsilman-Hunsaker, a St. Louis-based design firm that focuses on aquatic facilities. "If the kids are out there playing and having fun, they don't realize it is exercise and it's good for their health."

Smiley said interest in swimming has increased across age and ethnic lines as well. Older swimmers are often seen poolside, as swimming has long been known for its therapeutic and general exercise qualities.

"We've got more boomers getting ready to retire, and low-impact activity is going to take off," Smiley said. Aquatic circuit training is also becoming more popular for overweight children and teens, she added.

Meanwhile, women of Middle Eastern heritage, wearing specially designed swimwear in keeping with their faith, are participating in swim lessons more often.

"Ten or 15 years ago, we wouldn't have seen that, so it's exciting," Smiley said. "The pool is for everybody."