Friday, November 27, 2020
Moving the Needle
Is there anything bigger in the swimming world than world records breaking during a global pandemic? Yes, actually.
Buffalo City Swim Racers (BCSR) executive director, Mike Switalski, steadies his eye on swimming’s bigger picture: saving our youth. “There is so much more to the elements of this sport” he says. “Competition is just the byproduct.”
The BCSR program has about 500 swimmers, 90 percent of them Black. The median income in the community is $27,000, and the average household can not afford swim lessons, let alone swim team fees. And yet, Switalski has created a thriving swim program in this city for decades. They’ve even earned the Safe Sport recognition from USA Swimming, setting and keeping the standard on an elevated level envious of many swim programs nationwide.
Their mission is simply stated as developing character with a commitment to excellence, families and neighborhoods while creating lifelong swimmers. But their execution reaches much further. With the help of private donors, sponsorships and a grant from USA Swimming, Switalski provides pool access, coaching, transportation, academic support, and even necessary gear like suits, caps and goggles to the youth in the City of Buffalo.
“It’s a zero-overhead cost for families. We’re meeting demands in communities who normally don’t have these opportunities,” says Switalski. “It’s a huge fallacy that Black people can’t swim. We also combat the cultural fear of water that sometimes gets passed down through their generations.”
His learn-to-swim program has provided opportunities beyond just water safety and life-saving skills. Switalski’s integrated competitive camp is a huge motivator for the kids to keep swimming; once they earn a spot on the competitive team, the swimmer is awarded a special competition cap at a recognition celebration. “At the last ceremony, I had a 6-year-old who had no clue what was happening. But she recognized that special cap and broke into a huge smile,” says Switalski. “Seeing their faces light up...that’s why I do this job.”
Currently the competitive team swims two to three days per week, but Switalski’s goal (non-Covid times) is for five days a week at two hours each. The kids are offered seven different locations to swim at, and meet entries are covered. “We don’t like to prescribe specific times, days or locations -- this is all based on their availability because of barriers. We have single parents working two jobs to make ends meet, so we adapt and make it possible for them.
“One of my swimmers started with me when she was nine. She couldn’t put her face in the water. Now at 16, she’s going 25.0 in the 50.”
His program is so successful that it is used as a model nationwide for teaching underrepresented children. The reach extends far beyond the pool, blending swimming and academic goals and milestones. The program continually produces increased test scores and an overall higher academic achievement with every swimmer.
“We teach time-management skills, discipline and self-control that flows to other areas of life,” says Switalski. “It is a true life-saving and life-changing program.”
His success did not come easy. It took years of trial and error, a team of dedicated professionals to help see the program through, and his own awakening. Originally from a Milwaukee suburb that is only two percent Black, Switalski says his interaction with people of color was very limited.
“When we started out with this whole idea, I was given access to a basement pool in a community that was 99 percent Black, and 99 percent low income. With ethnicity and income sometimes affecting first-time participation in the sport, my first thought was, ‘we’re not going to get anybody’.”
He thought wrong. After that day in 1998 when he walked into the classrooms to talk to kids one on one, 600 permission slips came back to his desk. “I was blown away.”
Fast forward to 2020. BCSR has revamped and reorganized several facets to the program, and they keep growing stronger every year. Their continued success comes from decades of tireless efforts and dedication from Switalski and his team. “If this was a for-profit organization, we’d be on Wall Street.
“The fact is, we’re working within communities that are the future of USA Swimming,” says Switalski. “If we want to move the needle in our sport, we have to look out for minority communities. All of the cultural, economical and geographical barriers -- we simply remove them.”
Did you know?
A study examined 259 students in third and fifth grades and found that field tests of physical fitness were positively related to academic achievement.
Fatal unintentional drowning rates of African-American children ages 5-14 is almost three times that of white children of similar age.