AK: How do you build a swim culture where one’s never existed?

Bethel sits on a river, but many people here don’t know how to swim. People drown in the Kuskokwim every year, and for decades people thought the solution was to build a pool and teach people to swim. Well, two years ago the city got a pool. But how do you build a swim culture where one has never existed? That’s a question Bethel’s first swim team is trying to answer.

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Members of Bethel's first swim team meet at 6 a.m. each morning at the YK Fitness Center. (Photo by Katie Basile, KYUK - Bethel)
Members of Bethel’s first swim team meet at 6 a.m. each morning at the YK Fitness Center.
(Photo by Katie Basile, KYUK – Bethel)

“We are going to start with our freestyle set and move into butterfly,” Andrews said at a practice. “Two, one, go!”

She’s also Bethel’s first swim coach. Ever.

“It was interesting the first day,” Andrews said. “I had about 15 or 16 that came, some that were pretty good at swimming, some that had never swam in their lives before.

Now, more than a month into the season, there’re a dozen swimmers in grades seven through 12. Most of the teenagers had never swum before, at least not competitively. They could move from one end of the pool to the other, but not much farther, and not with proper strokes.

Most grew up in Bethel, where there’d never been a place to swim. Anyone who had learned didn’t do it here.

Gareth Rice: Every summer we go down to Oregon, so I started taking swim lessons down there.

Jordan Wheeler: My parents are from Utah, and so when we visit my grandparents, I learned how to swim there.

Skylar Sargent: My grandma was a lifeguard when she lived in Florida, when she lived there and taught swim lessons. So when we went to visit her, she helped teach all us kids that.

But most of the kids weren’t learning laps or strokes, at least not the kind Andrews is teaching.

Alexie Leonard practices the breast stroke during the Bethel Regional High School swim team practice on September 22, 2016. (Katie Basile, KYUK - Bethel)
Alexie Leonard practices the breast stroke during the Bethel Regional High School swim team practice on September 22, 2016. (Katie Basile, KYUK – Bethel)

Andrews said a consistent kick and high elbows are two of the most important concepts about swimming that she’s trying to teach.

“Never stop moving your arms, and never stop moving your feet, and you won’t stop moving,” Andrews said.

Another challenge Andrews faces is building credibility for swimming: teaching people that, yes, swimming is a sport, not just conditioning for another sport.

Ryan Smith is a tenth-grader.

“At first I was just trying to get in shape for wrestling,” Smith said. “But then it just stuck on me. It’s a fun sport, so got to stick with it.”

Now Smith said swimming is right up there with wrestling. And he’s found some unexpected benefits along the way.

“I’ve found that I’m excelling in all my classes more normally than I would have, because I’m waking up early in the morning and exercising,” Smith said.

Gareth Rice and Ryan Smith compare stroke lengths for Coach Erika Andrews at swim practice on September 22, 2016. (Photo by Katie Basile, KYUK - Bethel)
Gareth Rice and Ryan Smith compare stroke lengths for Coach Erika Andrews at swim practice on September 22, 2016. (Photo by Katie Basile, KYUK – Bethel)

The team gets up early. Most practices start at 6 a.m.; school starts at 8:15 a.m.

Tenth grader and basketball player Gareth Rice said the waking up part is hard, but the actual swimming part, is even harder. He’s had no trouble being convinced that swimming is its own sport.

“There have been limits that I wasn’t able to reach through any other sports or activities that I found in swimming, that I was able to push beyond that I never knew I could ever do before,” Rice said. “Swimming, it just works a lot more. It’s working everything simultaneously, and you have to be in sync, which you do in basketball, but I’d say in swimming a bit more. And it’s more of a constant, a constant work.”

Unlike many of the swimmers, tenth grader Skylar Sargent isn’t training for another sport. In fact, she said the whole sports thing is new to her.

“I am a nerd on the swim team,” Sargent said. “I am a very fit nerd. That is what I am.”

Sargent said in fourth grade she gave a speech to City Council, asking them to build a pool. Now it’s here, but she said are people still becoming aware of it. She calls the pool a phantom presence.

“Like, people know it’s here. They can sense it, but they don’t really go to it. Or it’s not a real thing,” Sargent said,” Just get more people interested.”

But has the pool made people safer on the river? Most of the swimmers, like seventh grader Jordan Wheeler, say yes.

“Even with life vest on, you still need to know how to keep yourself up,” Wheeler said. “So I feel safer for me and safer for everyone else because more people know how to swim now.”

The team is expected to compete at least once this year, probably against an Anchorage team. Coach Andrews called this year a building season, for the team and the community.

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Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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