Feature Article - July 2021
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Off the Deep End

Aquatic Programming, Tried, True & New

By Kelli Ra Anderson

Innovation, adjustments, communication and dogged consistency are just some of the essentials that aquatic directors, managers and coaches credit for exiting 2020 with their heads above water. Many have even found that COVID-19's forced restrictions and changes to the status quo were actually the catalysts for positive change responsible for doubling growth for programs and facilities once considered lackluster and waning.

Of course, there are always the new programming kids in town and the shiny new toys that help attract new patrons or keep current patrons curious, wanting to come back for more. Listing off just some of the programming that is currently popular, CEO and Executive Director of the Association of Aquatic Professionals (AOAP), Juliene Hefter, said they are certainly seeing lots of new programming trends that are targeting all demographics to get people back and more involved than ever in their local pools.

"New and innovative facility equipment/programming such as key log rolling, SUP yoga, surfing and new additions such as [ninja] courses, climbing walls and zip lines, just to mention a few," Hefter explained, "are new and innovative ways to make aquatic facilities more intriguing to those that may not utilize your facilities to just swim, but are looking for more active opportunities."

That has definitely been the experience for aquatics in the city of Irvine, Calif. "We have a group continuing to grow by the week, the Underwater Torpedo League," said Cory Hilderbrand, community services manager for the city about this rapidly expanding program. "Underwater hockey also continues to grow. Both of these are attracting a more diverse population from a CrossFit group to our facility we did not previously see."

Underwater Torpedo is a posterchild for the latest in aquatic fitness. Combining fitness training with the adrenaline rush of a high-paced team sport (minus breathing support systems because—hey, why not?), it boasts the ability to improve mental strength, endurance and lung capacity that, together, cross over into confidence-building life skills both in and out of the water. It is ideal for both beginners and advanced swimmers alike, with a star-studded cadre of fans ranging from NFL players to Olympic swimmers, advanced military units, as well as surfers and ocean lifeguards.

Even before last year, however, many aquatic facilities were expanding their programming beyond the traditional bread-and-butter mainstay of swim lessons. Water exercise, fitness and therapy were already gaining momentum and introduced popular options like aerobics, paddle boarding, aqua yoga, water walking, dance-focus formats and balance-focused classes to pool patrons. However, with the closing of many gymnasiums last year, the interest in aquatic options for fitness grew even more. The current belief is that this crossover may be here to stay.

"Our lap swim and water exercise programs have exploded in popularity since the beginning of the pandemic," said Gwen Willcox, community services manager for the City of Temecula, Calif. "Patrons who used to exercise at gyms have now found swimming and water exercise as a great workout opportunity. I foresee that these programs will continue to experience growth as people start to look outside the four walls of their gyms to find workout alternatives."

Even for pools where swimming continues to be the core, like Sunrise Pool in Peoria, Ariz., adding aquatic fitness programming has filled them beyond capacity to make a good thing even better. "We are sticking with swim lessons. Arizona is landlocked, and we have a high drowning rate as a result, so swim lessons are the main core," emphasized Christian Peck, the facility's aquatic coordinator about their continued commitment to swim lessons.

"But last year we did water aerobics and it was extremely popular. I don't know if it was because we are outdoors and an open place for people to work out when most gyms closed but water aerobics exploded. We have wait lists for that. So this year we are adding more of those classes even though gyms are open now. Given that it also appeals to a varied demographic—adults, seniors and even young adults and middle-aged—we are hoping it stays."

Get Small

One trend in programming that was already gaining attention pre-COVID but sealed the deal for those who applied it in 2020 is the switched focus from group to individual or small group swim lessons. While both kinds of teaching have their pros and cons, smaller group lessons have a lot of advantages. During 2020 when maximizing use of space became a matter of fiscal life or death, and the ability to micromanage social distancing of children could often feel like herding cats, small group or individual lessons became an easy solution whose time had come.

"A trend we were already seeing in 2020 was a move away from group to individual lesson programs, and that has certainly strengthened," Hilderbrand said. "That's a better use of space to scatter lessons throughout the day when the typical learn-to-swim is usually 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. at night. Private lessons can be more flexible."

Peck agreed, citing COVID-19's smaller class requirement to accommodate social distancing mandates as a blessing in disguise. Staff, in particular, discovered that smaller class sizes resulted in a more manageable teaching experience.