Photography by Brian Fitzsimmons
Created to curb the city’s mounting lifeguard shortages, SwimATX is helping East Austin teenagers realize their potential in the water and their communities.
Andrea Martinez had always been terrified of the water. A sophomore at Reagan High School, she’d have done everything within her power to avoid neighborhood swimming pools, end-of-year field trips to lakes and rivers, and anything else that exposed to her greatest fear: drowning. But with a chance to participate in her school’s SwimATX program—an in-school course developed to help staff local swimming pools—she decided to take the leap and enroll in January of 2017. A year and hundreds of hours in the water later, Andrea sat in front of me wearing a blue and white ‘Reagan SwimATX’ t-shirt recounting her journey. She was still in disbelief. “I never thought I’d learn how to swim," she said. "But with the right opportunity and support, I went from a potential drowning victim to a certified lifeguard in just a few months.”
To appreciate the ripple effect of transformations like Andrea’s, it’s important to understand the roots of the SwimATX program. Over the years, Austin’s lifeguard staffs have dwindled, causing some pools to open late or, in a few extreme cases, not at all. One of the core components of the problem was that not every part of the city was producing quality candidates for the job. Rather, the majority were coming primarily from more affluent areas (especially west Austin), where neighborhood pools and swim teams are commonplace. Conversely, with little infrastructure in traditionally poorer neighborhoods to help harbor the aquatic-friendly environment that breeds strong swimmers, specific regions—most of which are located in East Austin —produced few lifeguards and some of the highest drowning rates in the state. Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department knew something had to be done to bolster and diversify their lifeguard ranks. So in late 2014, alongside the YMCA and the Austin Independent School District (AISD), they founded the SwimATX program to build an employment pipeline from schools to pools. East Austin seemed like the perfect place to start.
But when Reagan’s Physical Education Department Head, Jerry De La Huerta, was notified of the program’s intent, he had a question: how can we expect kids to undergo lifeguard training if they can’t swim?
“I suggested we put together a learn-to-swim program where students can learn to swim all semester before undergoing a certification program,” said De La Huerta, who heads the school’s swim program. ”That way, we can ensure they receive the training and tools to be successful as city employees and representatives of their communities.”
City and YMCA officials agreed. Less than three months after the program was introduced, SwimATX was established as a comprehensive program that would guide swimmers of all strengths through a full semester of instruction. With so many beginners on hand, the course’s designers knew they’d have to be flexible with their curriculum and patient with their students. They couldn’t go easy on the kids, though, said Travis Lutz, the programs coordinator for City of Austin Aquatics. “By the end of every course, every participant, regardless of their initial ability in the water, was given a chance to take the five day, 40-hour lifeguard certification course,” he said. “To help the students reach that point, we had to get them to really buy into the mission.”
The program has become more and more streamlined over time. Now, a typical semester looks something like this: The first two weeks set the foundation, introducing students to basic skills like floating, treading water, and buoyancy. Once they have completed a Cooper test—12 minutes of continuous swimming where the total distance traveled is tracked—the kids are then split into groups based on swimming strength and attend two 90-minute classes a week, each of which entails grueling in-pool exercises and on-land activities like push-ups, sit-ups, and core work. The next several weeks focus on improving technique and learning specific swimming strokes. By halfway through its duration, the bi-weekly sessions are run like swim team practices, pushing participants to build on their distance and treading abilities. They’re also taught critical life-saving techniques like CPR and dive rescues for all depths. To keep their students motivated and safe throughout this process, the parks department and the YMCA each supply two on-site swim instructors. They also provide the training grounds for the classes, which take place at either Bartholomew Municipal Pool, which is heated and open year-round, or the YMCA’s North and East Community locations.
As the semesters have passed, SwimATX’s success has soared. The program currently has 94 students enrolled between Reagan and Eastside Memorial High School—about twice as many as in 2015—many of whom will graduate the program and become certified lifeguards. While stakeholders hope that number continues to rise, they’re excited about the impact they’ve already had on nearby communities, especially through the 35 course alumni currently working for YMCA and city pools in the area. While this may not sound like a huge number, it has sown the seeds for far greater benefits to come. “This program was created to staff local pools in these districts with homegrown lifeguards. Thanks to SwimATX, that’s almost entirely the case,” Kathleen Schneeman, Vice President of Human Resources at YMCA of Austin, said. “Now, families going to the pool see familiar faces atop the lifeguard stand: they see neighbors, nephews, friends. It sets the standard for future generations and gives those public spaces a true sense of community.”
In less than four years, SwimATX has grown from a little-known pilot program to a shining example of empowerment in communities that are often forgotten and ignored. Already, it has proven a schools-to-pools model works, which has city and YMCA officials eager to expand this programming into every AISD high school. But beyond its graduation rates, the course has shown it can teach students valuable lessons about leadership and provide them with critical life skills.
“Seeing these kids grow and learn how hard work and persistence pays off is my biggest reward,” Coach De La Huerta reflected. “We preach responsibility, academics, and representing their communities the right way all the time—because at the end of the day, our mission is to mold model students and citizens.”
Ashley Wells, the aquatics programming supervisor for the Austin Parks and Recreation Department, echoed De La Huerta’s thoughts.
“Every participant in the program emerges with a heightened sense of self and a crucial tool for survival. In that greater sense, we have a 100 percent success rate.”
With summer on the horizon, this semester’s cohort is making its final push before certification week in early June. After conquering the course’s nerve-racking culmination last year, Andrea will be watching on from the lifeguard stand in case the swimmers need help. It’ll be surreal being on the other end of things, but she hopes she can help motivate the latest group of students and remind them of how far they’ve come.
“I just want to remind them that, with practice and confidence anybody can beat their fears. SwimATX taught me that, and I’m proud to represent it every day.”
Regardless of how many lifeguards the program produces this summer, SwimATX’s future-focused, multi-layered mission will remain its greatest legacy. With every passing breaststroke, its students are learning to make waves far beyond the laplanes.