Kentucky LMSC members teach adults in underserved area how to swim
Louisville is a swimming town.
The largest city in Kentucky might be best known for horse racing, but make no mistake, it enjoys an impressive aquatics culture and history.
Louisville has produced several Olympic swimmers, including three-time gold medalist Mary T. Meagher. Saint Xavier and Sacred Heart Academy boast nationally acclaimed high school swim programs, and the University of Louisville men’s and women’s programs perennially rank among the NCAA’s best. Lakeside Swim Team, in operation since 1928, was named as one of USA Swimming’s Gold Medal clubs for 2019.
Almost all of this takes place east of 9th Street, the city’s unofficial socioeconomic boundary. There are more than 10 aquatic facilities in the East End of Louisville. That stands in stark contrast to the West End, which is predominantly African-American. There is one city pool, open only in the summer, and the two indoor pools are operated by the school district, which doesn’t have the funds to open them to the general public.
Although this disparity isn’t unique to Louisville, a groundswell is beginning to surge— chipping away at that inequity one swimmer at a time.
“There’s always been an awareness that people in the West End don’t swim, and that there is no water there,” says William Kolb, co-founder of the nonprofit Central Adult Learn-to-Swim, Inc. “[Our] overarching mission is to change the way an entire community approaches swimming and aquatics.”
Kolb and Amy Benton are native Louisvillians and lifelong swimmers. Kolb, 23, coaches at J. Graham Brown School in downtown Louisville and instructs at Lakeside. Benton, 44, is a mother of three and an instructor at Lakeside. Both swim for Swim Kentucky Masters and are U.S. Masters Swimming–certified adult learn-to-swim instructors.
The idea to provide lessons to underserved communities originated a couple years ago, when Benton taught a high schooler from the West End to swim. That personal connection led her to consider the impact an Adult Learn-to-Swim program could have in that part of the city.
“I started to realize there’s this whole generation of kids being raised by an entire generation of nonswimmers,” Benton says.
Last year, Benton secured a funding grant from the USMS Swimming Saves Lives Foundation, enlisted Kolb as a volunteer, and put the plan into motion. When they went to arrange pool time with the school district, they found an ally.
Jennifer Brian-Cheek has served as the aquatic coordinator at Jefferson County Public Schools for 15 years and is a longtime coach and lifeguard. She shares the same passion for swimming and desire to make the sport accessible at the two pools run by the school district, one at Central High School and one at the Academy @ Shawnee.
“The great thing about Jefferson County is that we have the space. The unfortunate thing is that we don’t have the resources,” Brian-Cheek says. “So this was a marriage made in heaven to have an organization that had the resources and funding to do this to partner with a facility that has the space.”
One of the first students to sign up was Patricia Mathison, an outgoing 53-year-old gospel singer who is well connected in the West End through community and church affiliations.
Mathison loves the ocean and traveling to beach destinations. She once worked six months straight aboard a cruise ship performing with B.B. King’s All-Stars on the open seas.
But she had never learned how to swim.
That changed when her daughter, Dionne Chandler, heard about the classes being offered at Central High. Patricia’s enthusiasm quickly made her a star of the class. Kolb recalls mother and daughter racing against each other, enjoying themselves and bringing fun and energy to the pool deck.
“[Mathison] changes the atmosphere of a room when she walks in,” Kolb says. “She’s just one of those people. She has an electric personality, and the whole class was better because she was in it.”
By the end of the week, Mathison was confident and safe in the water. She is surprised at how quickly and easily she learned, something she credits to the care and patience of her instructors. Ultimately, she describes the accomplishment as “a liberating experience, like having handcuffs removed.”
Invigorated by the experience, Mathison began to evangelize for the program. Her friends began filling up class rosters and creating wait lists for future sessions. She shared photos of her achievement on Facebook, and the response was so overwhelming and enthusiastic that the social media giant dispatched a video crew to Louisville to tell her story as part of the platform’s recent “gratitude” campaign.
“Now, I’m an advocate,” Mathison says. “I want everybody to learn how to swim. My goal is to actually become an instructor and help teach my people how to swim.”
She tells friends that once they get comfortable in the water, learning to swim is a lot less difficult than it might seem. So far, more than 30 of them have taken the class.
Mathison continues to attend training sessions and work on her strokes. She likes the fitness benefits, and she says it’s good for her arthritic knees.
Plus, she’s just plain having fun.
Soon after taking the class, Mathison went on a group vacation to Aruba and took full advantage of her newfound aquatic freedom. She spent much of the trip at the beach and the hotel pool, swimming, snorkeling, and even parasailing above the Caribbean Sea.
“I’m not getting ready to swim across the ocean,” she says with a laugh. “But I can jump in the pool without water going up my nose. I can swim underwater. I can swim on top of the water. I absolutely love it.”
Sink or Swim
Like many people who develop a fear of the water, D’Andria Cole endured a traumatizing event at a young age.
As an eighth-grader at Shawnee, one of her Navy Junior ROTC instructors pushed her into the deep end of the pool and told her she would either sink or swim. She panicked, and no one assisted her until it became clear she was in real trouble. She was scared, distressed, and embarrassed.
“I’ve been petrified ever since,” says Cole, a 59-year-old daycare provider. “I’ve been terrified of the water.”
Cole is friends with Mathison, and she was part of the group that vacationed in Aruba last year. But because of her fear, she couldn’t enjoy the trip to the fullest. She was able to walk into the water at the beach, but only up to her ankles—“That was enough,” she says. Eventually, Mathison coaxed Cole into the hotel pool and even got her to put her face in the water. She confided that she wanted to learn how to swim, and Pat pointed her toward the classes at Central High.
When Cole signed up, she didn’t tell anyone about it. She didn’t want to be judged. Before the first class, she sat in her car for 20 minutes and agonized before summoning the courage to walk in and join the group. After sharing her story, she felt understood and supported. But she still was gripped by fear and was the last student to go down the steps into the water.
“I was literally under the water crying because I was so afraid,” Cole says.
She persevered, and the task got a little bit easier each day. Kolb provided support and patience but also urged her to challenge herself. By the end of the week, she had succeeded. William took a photo of Cole with her completion certificate and texted it to Mathison, who was thrilled to learn what her friend had accomplished.
To mark the achievement, Cole’s son, Armond Wilson, gave her a card with a heartfelt message:
You have accomplished so many things and overcome so many obstacles. And now, you have defeated your fear of swimming. You have become an even stronger heartbeat for our family.
Cole still has some anxiety near the water, but she’s determined not to quit. She can’t wait to swim in the Caribbean when she visits Jamaica this summer.
“It’s a blessing to me,” Cole says. “I’m going to stick to it. I want to learn to do it and do it right. I’m not done.”
Benton, Kolb, and their group of volunteers have also made an impact with many India natives who now live in Louisville. While they come from a different cultural background than African-Americans in the West End, many of them share the same childhood trauma and fear of the water.
One of those people is Narasimha Tippi, a 46-year-old IT professional who took the class at the Meagher Aquatic Center in the East End. He had been scared of the water since he was a boy growing up in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad.
When Narasimha’s wife, Surabhi, took the adult learn-to-swim class and raved about her experience, he became intrigued. The couple’s daughter swims for duPont Manual High School in downtown Louisville, and their son is a member of a club team as a third-grader. Narasimha didn’t want to be the only one in the family who couldn’t swim.
“Whenever I see them [swim], I’m very proud,” Tippi says. “But also, in the back of my mind, I think, ‘I should’ve learned swimming.’ When this opportunity came up with Amy, I was so thrilled.”
Tippi signed up and attended class on his lunch break from work. He was one of several India natives among the students, and he was amazed at his quick progress. He says Benton got him comfortable in deep water in the first 30 minutes, and she recalls him yelling and celebrating when he successfully floated on his back for the first time. By the end of the week, he was confident in his ability to be safe in the water. He gave a speech to the class that his life had been changed because he could swim with his children now.
“What I couldn’t learn in 40 years, I learned in those five classes,” Tippi says. “I couldn’t have learned anywhere else so fast and so easily. I could sense their passion for teaching swimming, and that motivated me.”
Lofty Goals, Bright Future
Those are just a few of the stories.
Benton, Kolb, and their crew of volunteers from five different Masters clubs have taught more than 100 students to swim so far, and more than 100 others are signed up on wait lists for upcoming classes.
After spending the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation grant money, they continued putting on the classes out of pocket for a while. Then grateful students and others began making contributions, which led to the formation of the nonprofit organization. The group has five certified ALTS instructors, plus about 20 other Masters swimmers who regularly help teach classes. That allows for a 1-to-1 student-instructor ratio.
It’s a wildly successful start, but Kolb is mindful that there is a history of aquatics programs starting and stopping in the West End. He wants to buck that trend and reach as many people as possible.
Several classes are scheduled in April at the Central, Shawnee, and Meagher facilities, plus another in suburban Shelbyville, where a growing Hispanic community faces a similar lack of aquatic access.
“The two of them are magnificent,” Brian-Cheek says of Benton and Kolb. “They are such a force of nature together. They are so passionate about swimming and diversity and being inclusive and wanting to make swimming accessible to people.”
But the story doesn’t end when students complete the class and receive their certificates. Says Benton, “Everybody would graduate and say, ‘How do I keep going? I want to keep swimming.’”
Ultimately, Benton and Kolb hope to teach enough people to create a demand where the Central and Shawnee pools can be available to the community on a consistent schedule, affording West End residents the opportunity to make swimming an ongoing part of their lifestyle.
“Our mission is to keep it open, to keep it available, keep the education going, and keep the safety going,” Kolb says. “We’re not just teaching. We’re also providing an environment for continued practice.”
Brian-Cheek is on board as well, keeping the conversation alive among Jefferson County Public Schools, Kentucky Masters, USA Swimming, and the YMCA to discuss how they can collaborate and share resources to reach more people of all ages.
It’s been a whirlwind of progress the likes of which Benton and Kolb didn’t anticipate even a year ago.
“We always said if we advertise all these classes, and we only get two people that show up, it would still be worth it, because we taught two people to swim,” Benton says.
With a nonprofit up and running and supporters such as Mathison spreading the word, there is great momentum to impact the lives of more and more Louisvillians who wouldn’t have an opportunity to swim otherwise.
“Seeing actual change has been very inspiring,” Kolb says. “Watching people like Pat swim with their grandkids, swim with their children, have fun, and be safe is amazing.
“It’s not anything you could put dollar amount on. It’s just incredible.”
- Adult Learn-to-Swim