USA Swimming News

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Coach Melissa Wilborn Brings the DeKalb Aquatics Tiger Sharks to New Heights


Coach Melissa Wilborn Brings the DeKalb Aquatics Tiger Sharks to New Heights

When you’ve reached that point in your career where you’re coaching the kids of kids you have coached, you know you’ve been on deck for a while.

It also means you’ve coached in the same area for a couple of generations, and it’s a strong indicator that you’ve impacted many lives.

Melissa Wilborn is at that point in her career.

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The head coach of the DeKalb Aquatics Tiger Sharks in Decatur, Georgia, Wilborn has experienced firsthand the power of swimming at all levels: from club swimmer to collegiate athlete to U.S. Olympic Trials qualifier to coach. It’s been a reciprocal relationship. Swimming has given. She has given back.

DeKalb Aquatics is one of 12 clubs awarded an inaugural Community Impact grant from USA Swimming and the USA Swimming Foundation earlier this year. The $5,000 grants—renewable annually for up to three years—will assist these clubs in providing programming to underserved communities, supporting diverse coaches and creating more competitive opportunities.

“We are very grateful,” Wilborn says of the Community Impact grant. “We’re always appreciative of any grants that we receive.”

The funds will be used to expand the reach of DeKalb’s learn-to-swim program, which is available to all children ages 4-14. “This has primarily been a summertime program, but we’re going to begin offering year-round lessons,” according to Wilborn.

“Our focus is kids who can’t swim,” she explains of the targeted demographic. “Number one, to be on the club team, you’ve got to be able to swim, so you’ve got to start somewhere.”

Upward trends in transition from lessons to continued participation in the sport are promising. “Once we have them swimming, we work to bring them up through the ranks of our full program,” Wilborn says. “Depending on their skill level, they can either move to our summer league, which is our rec league, or move on to the year-round swim team.”

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Specifically, DeKalb Aquatics was selected as a recipient of a Community Impact grant as part of the Supporting Women and Multiculturally-Led (SWaM) component of the grant. These funds are presented to existing programs or fledgling programs that are led or owned by a woman or coach of diverse background.

Currently, women and diverse individuals make up a small percentage of full-time coaches in leadership. USA Swimming believes that growing the levels of diversity in team leadership broadens the talent pool of coaches who can develop new and innovative programs in communities across the country. The goal: fresh perspectives, fresh ideas.

As a Black woman and native of Decatur, Wilborn has experienced and witnessed the fluctuation of racial diversity in the local swim community over the years, particularly in the makeup of summer league swimming.

“When I started DeKalb Aquatics, the summer league was very diverse,” she explains, “but then participation became mostly African-American.” Wilborn decided to revamp DeKalb’s existing summer league program in her own vision and name the team In Town Dolphins.

The focal point of that vision was an emphasis on fun. “We wanted to give kids who weren’t quite sure if they wanted to swim year-round a positive introduction to the fun side of swimming,” she says. “Both sides are fun—rec and year-round—but getting to be with friends in the summertime, that’s really the fun side of swimming.

“We just wanted to show kids that swimming is a fun sport, no matter when you swim. It’s been a really positive spin.”

A commitment to growth in all forms of diversity, not only racial, is paramount to the mission of DeKalb Aquatics. “We might be the most diverse team in the state of Georgia,” Wilborn believes. “Very diverse staff, very diverse athletes, very diverse swim-family dynamics. Socioeconomic, racial, we have the whole gamut of diversity.”

The culture of the club is rooted in welcomeness and inclusivity, a tone set by Wilborn. “My door is open to anyone who wants to swim,” the coach says. “We pride ourselves in making sure everyone feels included and not left out. We strive to be very family-oriented.”

Intent on fostering a sense of belonging, coaches encourage athletes to focus on similarities between them and their teammates rather than differences. Working to eliminate or lessen the impact of circumstances that might reveal socioeconomic inequities is crucial to this end.

For example, the club purchases three new team t-shirts each year for every DeKalb swimmer rather than placing the onus on families to buy them. 

There are specific practices in place related to team travel, as well. A significant athlete expense inherent to competitive swimming—particularly at the regional and national levels—is travel to and from meets. 

“When we travel, we make sure that if a swimmer really wants to go, we find a way for that kid to attend,” Wilborn says. An athlete’s competitive opportunities will not be limited by a family’s financial situation. “Instead of having the athletes buy their own food, we have everything catered. We all eat the same, we all go to the same places, share the same experiences. Kids from all walks of life do a lot of things together.

“The kids get to come in and be kids and not worry about each other’s backgrounds.”

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Wilborn’s acceptance as a woman in a leadership position has evolved through the years, developing a level of respect for her programming by her coaching peers.

“Once you start getting kids to national-level status, you gain the respect of others,” Wilborn believes. “Not that you’re looking for it, but it is nice to have.”

An increase in the diversity of the coaching ranks in swimming is the next step forward for the sport, Wilborn says. “I would love to see more women of color in swimming. We spend a lot of hours on the pool deck, a lot of weekends away from family and friends — you have to want to do it, love it, and embrace it — it’s hard.”

The coaching staff for DeKalb Aquatics—several of whom are former Tiger Sharks—consists of four females and three males, reflecting that diversity Wilborn strives for.

Though Wilborn has made a presence on deck as a strong and successful female coach, the impact on time-related goals has impacted her male swimmers the most. “My track record has shown having the most success with male swimmers. Athletes ranked in the top 10, athletes competing at Sectionals, Juniors, one swimmer at Trials. Most of my national-level swimmers are males.”

In fact, Wilborn’s squads have at times included more male swimmers than female swimmers, an anomaly in club swimming.

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As for coaching the offspring of former swimmers: “I also have some kids who swim for me that are the kids of a high school teammate,” shares Wilborn. It is a sign of longevity and commitment. Less euphemistically, it is a sign of advancing age.

“It’s weird,” laughs the veteran coach of 30-plus years, “but it’s also special and really fun to experience that. You just never know who you’re going to get.”

Whoever Melissa Wilborn gets is fortunate to be guided by such a knowledgeable, caring, high-quality coach.

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