by Briana Warsing
Talk to Michael Gavrilchin, known as “Coach Michael” by the Roosevelt Island Marlins Swim Team, about the benefits of swimming, and he’ll have you wishing you could join the team.
In his opinion, swimming helps build life skills that transfer to school and future. He includes concentration, punctuality, time-management, self-confidence, overcoming anxiety, and becoming goal-oriented. And he lives what he preaches. Only last summer, he placed fourth at the Montreal Masters’ World Championship. “Swimming helps me outside the pool,” he says. He has memberships at “five or six” pools throughout the city.
Like many Island groups, the Marlins are undergoing a renaissance. A completely new board was elected early this month, and they want to encourage more enrollment, in addition to the two new beginner classes they added last year. They are celebrating an important anniversary – 10 years – and they feel that they have a future, thanks to the way the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) handled decommissioning the steam plant. It was definitely touch-and-go for a few months there. Coach Michael calls the Sportspark pool “our powerhouse” and said that without it, there would be no team.
The WIRE sat down with some of the newly-elected board members to talk about the team and swimming. Olga Shchuchinov, Ekaterina Vesselova, and Natalie Remor all have kids in the program – in Shchuchinov’s case, three.
They stress that they are a parent-run organization, and very accommodating. New swimmers can sign up anytime, without waiting for the start of a semester or month. There has been no price increase in 10 years. There are sibling discounts. The first child is full-price, but the second and third get a 25% discount. The fourth child is free. (There are two enrolled families with four kids.)
Shchuchinov says, “When you’re a parent and you have young kids, you start looking into something that’s affordable, year-round, and safe.”
Shchuchinov sees swimming as a healthy sport. She says, “The kids make so many friends. It’s a team atmosphere, and they have matching swimsuits. Every Friday after practice, they go out for pizza. They look forward to it. It’s very good for parents to ensure that your kids are socializing with kids with similar vision and goals,” adding, “When they’re busy, they have no time to do bad things. When they know that at 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning they have to be in the pool, there is no partying or drinking.”
Remor stresses the safety aspect. She says, “I think every kid should learn how to swim. It’s a safety issue. If they like it and they want to be competitive, there are ways to advance.”
Vesselova says that, in her son’s case, swimming was recommended by a doctor to strengthen his spine. This year, he is 10 years old and swimming with the junior team.
Board members also point out that swimming is not notorious for injuries. Vesselova and Shchuchinov say, “We are Russian. For us, ice hockey is the sport – but the injuries!” Remor feels the same way about American football, and notes the attention being given to how dangerous it can be. All the board members say that swimming is the most popular sport in the United States.
How Does it Work?
There are 220 swim teams in the metropolitan area. Shchuchinov says that the Marlins stand somewhere in the middle. There are swim meets at least monthly. This month, there were two.
According to a team parent, Corinna Kell, the team was started 10 years ago by two Serbian moms who wanted swimming lessons for their kids. One was Slavica Gak, who still lives on the Island. They hired an instructor to come to Westview and teach classes, and advertised it so that other parents could benefit. Fifty kids showed for that first class; they had expected 10. Soon after, they formed a board. According to Kell, “It was a fun beginning.” Successful, too: Gak’s son, Milos, got a swimming scholarship to Colgate University’s Division 1 swimming program.
Milos Gak says, “Swimming has been a huge impact on my life. When I started swimming I was very overweight. Swimming pulled me out of that and turned me into an athlete. Swimming has also taught me the values of hard work, dedication, and consistency. The coaches and teammates along the way have guided me in life, both in and out of the pool, and for that I have the sport to thank.”
The youngest children in the learn-to-swim program are three years old. In that program, kids start out as beginners, according to the American Red Cross designations. Once they complete the advanced level, they can join the team. Lessons are run for a half-hour until the child is in the intermediate level, when they swim for one hour. In the learn-to-swim program, kids take lessons two or three times a week.
The swim team is subdivided into a junior and a senior team. The seniors practice every weeknight, 5:00-7:00, and two hours on Saturday mornings. The juniors have Tuesdays off.
Why So Much Pool Time?
Coach Michael explains that swimmers must log time in the water for skill strength. “Otherwise, you lose it quickly.” He says that swimmers must practice the right motions and undergo rigorous training, and points out that swimming is a sport of “constant repetitions.” His goal is to model what professional programs and high school programs do. “Swimming is about practice. And if you work hard and concentrate, if you’re disciplined, goal-oriented, and attentive, the results come.”
Parents agree. Andrea Grozdanic, who has two children in the program, speaks of the impact that being on the junior team has had on her daughter. She says that the two hours in the pool relax her after a day at school with no physical activity. Then she’s ready to focus, and can complete her homework in a half-hour. She adds that, on Tuesdays, the single weekday that the junior team doesn’t practice, it takes her daughter “forever” to complete her homework. She now describes her daughter as focused, full of self-confidence, and in “really good shape.” Grozdanic says, “I love this program. I hope it will stay forever.”
Describing his role, Coach Michael says he wants to maintain motivation and have swimmers work as much as possible on technique. “Swimming is an individual sport, but when it comes to practice, they operate like a team and motivate each other. It’s the coach’s job to inspire kids to complete these intensive workouts. If the coach isn’t there, they won’t work as hard.”
The Marlins also provide master’s workouts for swimmers over 18, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights from 7:30 to 8:30. Coach Michael is in charge then, too. “I jump in the pool and I forget about everything else.”