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Richmond Times Dispatch (Virginia)



Collin took his swim jersey off for the first time and headed to the starting blocks. His small frame towered above the water as he took his mark. This was his first swim without his swim shirt - this was also his first competitive event.

For the last two weeks Collin has been up at 4 a.m. pacing back and forth in his room, worried about this moment.

He finished the race, hopped out and marched confidently to high fives from his coach, teammates and parents. Then he smiled. Collin is autistic.

Collin's parents are like many in our region: aware of the risks that swimming pools and bodies of water present for their children. Ninety-one percent of deaths among children with autism, as a result of wandering, are caused by drowning.

USA Swimming and the University of Memphis learned more about swimming in 2010 and reported that 70 percent of our minority communities in America and 66 percent of children with limited financial means are not learning how to swim.

Minorities drown at rates five times that of the rest of the population and children who do not start the process of learning to swim by the third grade likely never will. Sadly, African Americans have been denied opportunities to learn to swim due to nearly nonexistent access to pools and swimming lessons. For more than half of the 20th century, it was illegal in Virginia for African Americans to swim in pools for whites only.


Five years ago, SwimRVA was born as the Richmond region's aquatics advocate. The mission is to ensure our residents have equitable access to aquatics.

On April 17, 2012, the Collegiate School Aquatics Center (CSAC), owned and operated by SwimRVA, was commissioned for service to the region. Today it realizes over $5 million a year in sports tourism. The facility is a centerpiece of SwimRVA's goals to elevate aquatics in RVA by serving as a catalyst for a community-wide focus on water safety, health and fitness, competitive swimming, and sports tourism.

While working on each of these, we have uncovered incredible opportunities that will enhance the quality of life and strengthen neighborhoods all over the Richmond region through collaboration.

The aquatics community has begun a process of cooperation in a few key areas. The YMCA of Greater Richmond and SwimRVA are providing cost-free learn-to-swim programs for area second graders at 52 of the metro area's 138 elementary schools as part of the Drownproof Richmond Initiative.

The goal is to reach every child by the year 2020. To deploy the regional initiative, SwimRVA partners with Virginia State University, the city of Richmond, and the Hopewell Community Center to reach children in their communities.

Eight of our region's nine school districts are actively participating and sharing a collaborative story. To reach the remaining 86 schools, though, SwimRVA and the YMCA will need support from other organizations for access and, in some cases, new aquatics infrastructure.


Four years ago, our three biggest school districts had no high school swim teams, except one at Maggie Walker Governor's School. Today, Chesterfield and Henrico see more than 650 students participate on high school swimming teams because of the united advocacy of parents and USA Swimming Club programs.

The Afterschool Alliance reminds us that the hours between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. are the most vulnerable for teen victimization. High school swimming teams are helping our region stay safe and contribute to the health and well-being of our students. While this progress has been quick and fantastic, we have work to do. We are still missing high school swimming programs in some of our most vulnerable areas.

Swimming pools are big ideas and change agents that serve a community across the age and ability spectrum, and have for decades.

In 1971, the Salvation Army moved the Red Shield Boys Club from Church Hill's 28th Street to its current location at 3701 R Street and was renamed the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club and Neighborhood Center. The facility boasted a pool donated by the E. Claiborne Robins family. Forty years later the pool was no longer usable. SwimRVA teamed up with the Salvation Army to raise $4 million of support from the community, and a newly renovated aquatics center will open this fall to serve the Church Hill community for another 40 years.

Through unique and powerful public-private partnerships our region can realize spaces that are more than just swimming pools. Spaces that can serve students, families, and seniors from every background imaginable for tutoring, communicating, meeting, laughing, exercising, and competing.

Many of you have a positive aquatics story. Is it your grandmother who used water aerobics to recover from hip replacement surgery? Or maybe it is your son who received an athletic scholarship to compete for your alma mater. Perhaps it is your neighbor who fights obesity by staying active in a gravity-free, pain-free, environment.

Too often, however, our aquatic story is one of deficits. Even worse, yours may be a story of loss to the No. 2 leading cause of accidental death for children ages 1 to 14.

Our region, like many others, is healing from bad policies of the past. We are collaborating and creating a new and positive aquatics story. Swimming pools are creating space for Collin, your grandmother, your son and your neighbor to enrich one another's lives and keep RVA active.

Jeff Wiltse said it well in his 2007 book "Contested Waters": "(Swimming pools) offer an informal social space - a meeting ground - where people separated by social differences, large yards and high fences, busy lives, and electronic entertainment can interact and communicate face to face. Municipal pools can humanize relationships between people. They enable the sustained and unhurried interaction necessary for members of a community to meet, forge bonds of friendship, and develop a sense of shared interest and identity."

Swimming pools are more than water and concrete, they are part of the new collaborative fabric that is our RVA.

Adam Kennedy is the executive director of SwimRVA and a tireless advocate for inclusion and opportunity through aquatics. When not wet, he finds every opportunity to talk about the positive energy and spirit that is our Richmond.

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Collin, now a confident swimmer, dives deep at a local pool. Family photo Collin, now a confident swimmer, dives deep at a local pool. Family photo
May 17, 2017


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