By Chuck Wielgus//USA Swimming Executive Director | Thursday, May 12, 2016Recently, I was in Washington DC on USA Swimming business. The day’s meeting wrapped up around 1:30 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, so I rented a car and drove up to Philadelphia to spend the weekend with my two sons and four grandkids.
Little did I know that this trip would also give me a front row seat to our sport at the grassroots level. On Saturday morning, I joined my younger son, Tommy, and his three-year-old daughter, Lily, for her swimming safety lesson at the local YMCA.
The Ambler Area YMCA is a relatively new facility, clean and inviting in every way. In fact, it was a beehive of activity with children, teenagers, millennials, families and adults of all ages utilizing the pools, gyms, indoor track, fitness center and other activity areas.
There was also a coffee shop and lounge area, where people were relaxing, working on computers and getting something light to eat. It struck me that this wasn’t the kind of YMCA that I grew up with as a kid. This was a full blown community center!
Throughout the United States, YMCAs provide more than 2,000 swimming pools. Were anyone to wonder why we reserve a spot on the USA Swimming Board of Directors for a representative from the YMCA of the USA, here was the answer. No other organization offers so many swimming pools, and these pools are precisely where hundreds of thousands of children are learning to swim and become safer in and around the water.
Next, I was struck by the locker room facilities. In addition to the separate girls, women, boys and men’s locker rooms, there was also a large family locker room. Tommy, Lily and I went into this family locker room and it was packed with people of all ages and genders, with changing stalls that provided privacy.
Lily’s class took place in the shallow end of the pool and there were nine other children her age, each with a parent in the water. The kids and their parents were all in a circle, and in the middle was the instructor, an enthusiastic woman who brought personality and energy to the group. I would learn later that she was one of more than 150 part-time employees at the “Y” … one more element of the community center environment.
And by the way, the YMCA of the USA may be the official national name, but all its member institutions are now branded under the single letter “Y” … a clear effort to broaden a sense of inclusiveness.
And speaking of inclusiveness, Lily’s class could not have been any more diverse. Of the 10 parent/child couples there were two African-Americans; two Middle Eastern; one Hispanic; one Chinese; and four Caucasians.
If 10 years from now all 10 of these children were to get into competitive swimming and join a USA Swimming member club, we’d then have a pretty good representation for how the future of our sport’s membership should look. Seeing what was happening at the Ambler Area “Y” gives me hope that our sport will continue to evolve and increasingly look to mirror the changing demographics of our country.
I returned to Colorado Springs with a renewed appreciation for what is happening at the grassroots level. I’ve always been a “Y guy,” having played pickup basketball at Ys all across the country. I received my Master’s Degree from Springfield College, which began as a YMCA Training School and which was the most prominent physical education school in the United States before the advent of all of the sports management programs that we see today.
More importantly, though, I returned to Colorado Springs with a positive feeling about the future of our sport. That simple hour spent at a suburban Y presented me with an incredibly positive executive summary of what the future might be.
If what I witnessed at the Ambler Area Y is representative of what is happening at other Ys and other swim schools across the country, then our sport is very healthy and growing. What I saw was the pipeline, and coming back to Colorado Springs where many of our nation’s top swimmers are currently training for the coming Olympic Team Trials, it gave me a clear picture of how journeys are started.
We spend a good deal of time looking at the studies, survey results and statistics that are routinely published about youth sports in America. Swimming rates highly in all these reports and what I saw at Lily’s morning swim brought it all to life for me. These programs make kids safer in and around the water, the facilities can be community centers and the instructors and teachers are the front-line ambassadors for our sport.
Swimming not only makes the lives of individuals better, but it has a positive impact on families and communities. These are wonderful reminders for all of us, and refreshes us as to what’s most important as we go to work every day.