Pool Your Resources

Aquatics programming ideas to help keep your facility floating

By Mitch Martin

Splash Party Movie Night at Deep Eddy Pool
in Austin, Texas.

Aquatics programming is a lot like the "Price is Right." Aquatics directors are forever trying to go right up to the actual maximum use of space, without going over.

Aquatics directors are dealing with an expensive and finite asset. In many areas of the country, the finite space problem takes precedence. Every minute of the day and every inch of pool space are used up.

Other areas of the country, particularly warm regions with easily accessible natural water bodies, the financial part of the equation takes precedence. While few pools are idle for very long anywhere in the country, the high cost of running a pool makes what directors call "dead water time" anathema to a successful aquatics program.

The finite, expensive nature of the aquatics resource makes each decision a facility manager makes an intrinsically precious one. Added to the economics, however, is the simple fact that aquatics programming must be designed under the special concerns of liability and safety in the water environment.

This is not to say all is grim for the aquatics facility manager. Across the country, aquatics professionals are taking up the challenge of filling the programming calendar with both the traditional swimming lessons and team sports and the new horizons of therapeutic aquatics and nontraditional programs.

In this feature, we will look in particular at three programming segments with specialized opportunities: seniors, children and nontraditional programs. All three are areas that can fill dead water time or simply increase a facility's service to its community.

Veteran facility manager Ray Morrill of the Wheaton Park District in Wheaton, Ill., reminds us that aquatics facilities have a much more professional staff then they did when he started in the field in the 1970s. For instance, all his aquatics staff, programming and maintenance are certified.

"Just the nature of the business today, it really requires the whole operation be professional," Morrill says.

Old standards
Because floating around in a pool and watching
movies are two great ways to beat the heat of
summer, Deep Eddy Pool (a facility run by the City
of Austin, Texas) offers Splash Party Movie Nights.

It is not a new trend, but it is becoming an ever more prevailing one: the increasing median age of American society. MSNBC reported that a Baby Boomer is turning 50 every 7.6 seconds in the United States, and senior citizens will outnumber young people by 2050.

Aquatics can offer the lowest impact form of exercise as well as a range of therapeutic tools for seniors.

However, experts say that a surprising number of aquatics facilities do not provide the simplest requirements to make pools safe and comfortable for older guests.

"It's pretty simple really," says Mari Lou Moschetti, an Alpo, Calif.-based aquatics consultant. "If you want to have seniors, have a cover over your pool and warm water."

Shannon Whetstone Mescher, vice president of programs and services at the Arthritis Foundation, says water temperature is one of the most important keys to providing aquatics programming for seniors with arthritis.

"Eighty-three degrees is the minimum and between 84 degrees and 88 is ideal," Mescher says.

The foundation has more than 300,000 participants in its aquatic therapy program. Mescher suggests several other keys for providing water aerobics and other exercise and therapy programs for seniors:

  • n Pool depth of between four to five feet, so participant's shoulders are submerged. Lacking this depth, a facility should provide weighted seats.
  • n Permanent or portable stairs with a rail or ramp
  • n Safety and flotation equipment
  • n A mechanical lift is desirable, though Mescher acknowledges they are price prohibitive.
  • One of the bigger new developments will be the implementation of deep-depth aerobics programming, a third level of the class the foundation hopes to have finished sometime next year.

    "The new program will allow the development of endurance and a fuller range of motion," Mescher says.

    Youth is wasted on poor programming

    Aquatics programs across the country are constantly trying to reach out to the future of swimming pools and waterparks: the young swimmer. In particular, in recent years, there has been an effort to make swimming more accepted to the youth in older, urban areas.

    The City of Austin's Parks and Recreation Department in Austin, Texas, has long been known for its famous aquatics facility, Barton Springs Pool. Naturally 69 degrees year round and lined with pecan trees, the spring pumps 27-million gallons of water a day. The pool is a national attraction, and not just because it's the place Robert Redford purportedly learned to swim.

    Perhaps as unique is the programming the parks department employees use to reach out to the young. The Austin parks department doesn't use software to manage the programming for its numerous facilities and about 750 staff members, instead creating the entire pool calendar by hand. However, that doesn't mean the programming lacks innovation. Aquatics Manager Farhad Madani feels that by consistently meeting with neighborhood associations and surveys, his staff is quite responsive to the unique needs of the urban community.

    Northside Family Aquatic Center in Wheaton, Ill.

    "Part of our mission is simply to provide a lot to do, either in or out of the pool, to keep teenagers and young people off the streets," Madani says.

    The Austin parks department implements two particularly unique aquatic programs to reach out to youths (and their families).

    One is a water safety day run with local primary schools. It is designed to reach out to schoolchildren, particularly in urban areas where parents tend not to register their children for swim lessons.

    Partnering with another parks department group, the aquatics staff brings about 300 to 400 kids on a single day to parks department facilities for loosely structured aquatics-related activities both in and out of the water. For example, an instructor might involve the children in a water-balloon game that also teaches a lesson in swimming fundamentals.

    "Basically swimming is not seen as cool or fun, and this program introduces them to the fact that it really is," Madani says. "About 20 to 30 percent of the kids who participate in this end up taking swimming lessons from us."

    Madani says one key to the program is partnering with another parks department program that already has contact and skill with the nonswimmers. The Get Real (Recreation, Education, Activity, Leadership) Roving Leader program began in 1997 to reach out to kids not served by the parks department.

    "[Get Real staffers] will work with the kids, particularly with land-based activities, and they just know how to play with the kids and get them involved in something new," Madani says.

    Another successful program the Austin parks department has implemented is called Splash Party Movie Nights. It's basically a dive-in movie. Especially popular during hot Texas summer nights, the program puts a large movie screen up at the end of the city's Deep Eddy Pool, and then entire families watch the movie from the flotation devices of their choice.

    The parks department charges just enough to pay for maintenance and the cost of the movie: $2 for adults, $1 for teens and 50 cents for children under the age of 11. In 2001, the city showed everything from near first-run fair like "Remember the Titans" to classics like "Old Yeller."

    The program has drawn as many as 1,500 people at night.

    "It's extremely popular as a way for a family to cool off and have fun and all for a price most people can afford," Madani says. "It's not a money maker for us, but it gets people interested, and it provides a service."

    A Career in Aquatics Programming
    A quick profile of one aquatics manager in Texas

    Farhad Madani still speaks with a light Iranian accent, but it is leavened by a Texas drawl.

    Emigrating from Iran in 1978 just ahead of the Iranian Revolution, much of Madani's view of American life has come from the lifeguard's chair and the pool deck. At the age of 16, he got a job as a lifeguard in Austin's inner-city swimming pools before he commanded the English language.

    "I couldn't speak a full sentence when I started," he says. "Basically, the only English I knew was: no running, no diving and no horseplay. That was about it."

    Over the next 23 years, Madani worked his way up through the ranks of the City of Austin's parks and recreation department, now serving as manager of the aquatics section. He oversees a large division, diverse both in its facilities and its client population.

    The City of Austin, Texas, is approximately half white but also has a 30-percent Hispanic population and healthy-sized Asian and African-American communities. The parks department has very diverse facilities, including a spring, a waterfront and dozens of pools. The famous Barton Springs is the home of the Barton Springs Salamander, an endangered species.

    In an intensely political environment, Madani has had to balance keeping the springs clean enough for human swimming without adding chemicals that would endanger the rare salamander's habitat.

    Madani says the parks department has provided a wonderful place to use his skills to the fullest. He flunked his first lifeguarding test but joined master swimmers in his early 20s, an experience that has left the now 39-year-old a highly proficient swimmer. After more than 20 years at the department, he has seen the effect aquatics has on the young adult.

    "Because I've been around, I get to see our lifeguards come back as lawyers, doctors and fireman," Madani says. "One of my favorite things is, when we have an issue, to call up one of our former lifeguards who is now running another pool program somewhere else."

    He says programming in the urban environment is a constant challenge, but a good challenge.

    "It makes you stay creative," he says. "And I get to work with the whole spectrum of aquatics, from a very suburban-style environment one day to inner-city pool the next."

    Madani says the best part of the job is making a difference in the lives of young children.

    "If you've provided a safety program that saves a life, or you see the kids from a certain area really enjoying themselves, it really reminds you why you're doing the job you're doing," he says.

    A new brand of aquatics

    Just as X sports have become the hot trend in land-based recreation, alternative sports have become the new, new thing in aquatics.

    Underwater hockey players trade ice for water
    at the Aquatic Center/Sport Club at San Jose
    State University

    Sports such as underwater hockey and underwater rugby are somewhat rare but growing. Popular in many other former English colonies and in Europe, underwater hockey is a strange mix of physicality and grace. Played on the bottom of pools, swimmers use snorkeling equipment and push the puck along the pool floor with a 12-inch stick.

    The game is relatively rare in the United States. The Washington Post reported in 2000 that while the small Australian state of Tasmania has 30 clubs, all of the United States has the same number of clubs. However, it appears to be growing in popularity, particularly along the seaboards.

    Caryn Murray runs the aquatics center at San Jose State University, which includes one of the largest pools ever constructed in California. As the author of a recent article for the Texas Public Pool Foundation on aquatics programming, Murray says these alternative sports could really help fill up the dead water time.

    "The cost of running a pool is so expensive, you have to be conscious of filling in that time," Murray says. "The hockey team is made up of somewhat older players who are comfortable playing from 7 to 10 p.m. That's great for my pool."

    Murray says part of the problem in the United States is that while many European and Australian pools have expensive tile bottoms that facilitate underwater hockey, American pools are often fiberglass. To that end, her pool has been equipped with a nonremovable slick mat to facilitate the sport.

    "It's in the deep end, so it doesn't interfere with any other activity," Murray says.

    Other facilities are not taking up the sport, in part because they haven't figured out the safety considerations. Madani says Austin is holding off for the present on underwater hockey.

    "It looks like a very fun sport, but the general safety guideline is you aren't supposed to have people holding their breath underwater for long periods of time," Madani says. "So we are sort of holding off because of that contradiction."

    Education, education, education

    Most aquatics experts agree that no matter what program, old or new, educating the public about its existence is a key to success.

    Sophisticate aquatics facilities get the word out using a broad range of media tools: mailers, Web sites, in-facility brochures and press releases to local newspapers. Morrill feels the quarterly brochure is his primary education tool.

    "One thing we've done is combined it with our camp program, which allows parents to sort of plan their summer," Morrill says. "It's been very successful. People are waiting for it to arrive."

    For seniors and others with arthritis, Mescher suggests publicizing programs through health-care professionals. Most people with arthritis see a primary-care physician and/or a rheumatoid specialist, as well as a physical therapist or occupational therapist.

    Murray reminds her fellow aquatics managers not to forget the importance of educating staff, both for new programs and re-educating staff for existing programs. She says this was particularly important as aquatics programs continue to diversify.

    "Probably one of the biggest challenges is educating your staff," Murray says. "Each client has their own needs, and the challenge is to get the staff to understand those needs are changing on a daily or even an hourly basis."

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