USA Swimming News

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Mid-Hudson Heatwaves Builds Community for Local Hispanic Swimmers


Along the banks of the Hudson River lies the city of Poughkeepsie, New York. About halfway between New York City and Albany, the city is home to over 30,000 residents and among them is Galen Franchek, a local swim coach with a passion for sharing the sport she loves with kids of all backgrounds.

Franchek’s coaching career began nearly 30 years ago. When the hardships of her local pool’s closure hit, Franchek and her husband, John Berrio, decided to create the Mid-Hudson Aquatics organization as a non-profit in 2015, with the Mid-Hudson Heatwaves team debuting in 2017.

“It was very difficult,” Franchek said of starting the club from scratch. “But this last season, our numbers were up to 80. And for all of those 80, they had never been on a competitive swim team before.”

While Franchek created the club as a means to fuel her love for the sport, she immediately saw a trend of diverse swimmers joining her club as its numbers grew. According to the 2019 U.S. Census, more than half of the residents of this southeastern New York town identify as Black or Latino.  When the club hit the 80-member mark, Franchek estimated that nearly three-fourths of the team was from the Latino and/or Hispanic community. While interest in the sport is growing among Hispanic swimmers in Poughkeepsie, a 2017 USA Swimming Foundation report on a study by the Memphis and University of Nevada – Las Vegas showed 45 percent of the Hispanic/Latino children in the United States have little to no swimming experience.

MHHWMeet250x230The interest in swimming from the Poughkeepsie Hispanic community comes in part by virtue of the town’s demographics, but also the numerous resources that Franchek and her staff provide to the Poughkeepsie residents. While she credits affordable pricing and word-of-mouth marketing as a big factor, Franchek added that the club offers free learn-to-swim days for the community as well as diversity meets, where the Mid-Hudson Heatwaves compete against other diverse clubs.

“The diversity meets are where we really feel embraced,” Franchek said. “Those are meets that are particularly set aside to embrace diversity and promote diversity.”

Franchek and her staff, who are known for being almost a completely English/Spanish bilingual staff, have worked hard to create a welcoming environment for all families in their club. While language and cultural differences could create barriers among such a diverse team, Franchek believes it is one of the reasons why the coach-parent relationship is so strong with the Hispanic families.

“When you have someone communicate to another person in the same language, you don’t feel any pressure or any sense of not belonging,” Franchek explained.

The welcoming nature of Mid-Hudson Heatwaves has created ongoing opportunities and a sense of comradery for the Hispanic swimmers and their families. The overall goal, according to Franchek, is to create a sustainable program for the multicultural community of Poughkeepsie. Just as Franchek grew up with a passion for swimming, she wants families to do the same so they can show their children the importance of water safety and inclusion.

While most of the members of Mid-Hudson Heatwaves are Hispanic, the team also consists of a family born in Trinidad and Tobago, a Jamaican-born assistant coach and many other backgrounds. Though each member comes to the pool with different life experiences, their differences often seem to fade away when the children enter the water.

“These children are in a cross-section of society,” Franchek said. “We have a swimmer who is Muslim and wears a full-body suit to practice, so we’re talking about all sorts of visuals where these children aren’t looking at each other differently anymore. Other teams may look at us differently, but we don’t see it.”

Though the program is less than a decade old, they have already seen these diverse swimmers go on to develop a deep admiration for the sport. Multiple swimmers have gone from simple learn-to-swim lessons, to competitive swim meets to even a few members taking on lifeguard roles to help spread the importance of water safety.

Regardless of the swimmers’ backgrounds, Franchek believes that each family who comes into the program is using the sport to grow both in and out of the pool.

“Swimming is one big family,” she explained. “And there are disparities, but we’re all working on it. It’s so important for children to have a sport like swimming in their life. You can be an introvert, an extrovert, and it’s an escape.”

When asked what the most rewarding part of watching her swimmers is, Franchek responded, “Watching them replace me. We need the next generation. We need new faces and the children do need icons.”

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