Monday, June 7, 2010

Swim program paying dividends for Grand Bahama

The Guardian Newspaper

Freeport, Grand Bahama- Three of the five swimmers from the Grand Bahama YMCA's Wave Runners Swim Club, who competed at the CARIFTA Swimming Championships in Jamaica this year, returned with medals. Two of those three, and an additional member from the YMCA Wave Runners, also qualified for the Caribbean Island Swimming Championships (CISC), which will take place in Cuba this July. Those three members are Taryn Smith, Aaron Levarity and Peter Farquharson.

Levarity won two gold medals and a bronze at this year's CARIFTA Swim Championships, and Taryn Smith added a silver and two bronze medals (two of them in individual events). Another member of the club, Maya Albury, came back from Jamaica with a bronze medal.

Executive Director of the YMCA, Karon Pinder-Johnson, said this was a testament to the quality of training that the YMCA swimmers are exposed to through Coach Iva Dreke. Dreke has a graduate degree in physical education from Havana's Manuel Piti Fajardo Institute, and is an ex-member of the Cuban national swim team. She has been coaching in The Bahamas for 10 years, and has trained more than half of the top swim athletes in the country.

"It shows that the swimmers in our program are getting the kind of training that is needed to take them to championship levels, but we are also seeking to expand interest in swimming to a wider population," said Johnson.

Two years ago, Coach Dreke designed a Swim for Ocean Survival (SOS) program to teach as many children as possible - in the least amount of time and at minimum cost - the basic skills needed to survive in the water. Children as young as three years old are taking part in the program.

The introductory level teaches children how to save themselves if they fall into a pool. In the next level they are trained to spend more time in the pool or ocean. The last stage teaches children to swim 75 feet to safety in the open ocean. The entire SOS program can be completed in 12 sessions.

Once the safety training is completed, children can receive instructions in the basic swimming techniques required for competitive swimming. The SOS program also teaches them about the marine environment, on the principle that if a swimmer understands the nature of sea life and the oceans, most of the common hazards encountered in Bahamian waters can be avoided.

The SOS program is funded by a special grant from two Lyford Cay residents - Louis Bacon and Kris Lehmkuhl - who believe that enhanced water safety and respect for the environment should be a top priority for schools and communities around The Bahamas.

"We are very grateful to these two gentlemen," said Johnson. "Because of them we have been able to teach basic skills to some 1,500 children from schools all over the island, providing a pool of kids who are able to enjoy swimming, and will perhaps participate competitively to raise The Bahamas' profile at international events."

According to Johnson, the YMCA's initial concern is for safety and survival: "We have to get children waterproofed first so they know what to do in the event of an accident. That's our first three levels. Then we can introduce them to competitive swimming techniques."

Last year, the YMCA launched its free SOS program for public school students on Grand Bahama. This year the program was expanded to about 500 students at Bishop Michael Eldon Anglican High School in Freeport, Grand Bahama.

The popularity of the SOS program, combined with the success of the YMCA's competitive swim training, have led Johnson and Dreke to look at ways to expand interest in swimming and make it more accessible to the wider Grand Bahamian community.

In pursuit of this goal, the YMCA has made adjustments and improvements to its swim programs, and to its swimming pool facility, in full support of Coach Dreke, who is the aquatic director. Dreke has already trained and certified 10 swim instructors to help with the program.

To teach survival skills to a large number of kids, and to make training for those interested in competitive swimming more accessible, the YMCA has reduced its fees to $55 per child per month, from the initial rate of $85.

Johnson pointed to the fact that five swimmers trained by the YMCA made it to the CARIFTA championships, and three of those brought home medals, as evidence of the quality of the program and the coach. It is hoped that the SOS program will be expanded to schools on other islands, so that as many Bahamian children as possible can learn swim survival skills.

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