Swim Strong Foundation Puts Water Safety First

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Swim Strong Foundation Puts Water Safety First

At one end of the pool, 25 youth swimmers—many from competing CYO swim teams—streak across the water in preparation for an upcoming meet. At the other end, 40 beginning swimmers receive semi-private lessons, learning basic water skills in groups as small as two or three children per instructor.

In spite of all the activity, however, the prevailing mood is one of calm focus. There is no shouting, no careless splashing and certainly no running.

Swimming pools are not usually so quiet.

“They come to work,” says Aretha Araujo, who has two sons enrolled in the Swim Strong Foundation’s Saturday morning program. “My sons love it, and they have a great time, but they know when they come here, it’s not a social occasion. They have a purpose.”

Founded in 2006 by East Elmhurst resident Shawn Slevin, Swim Strong’s four-pronged mission emphasizes water safety; enriching young lives through competitive swimming; physical fitness; and launching youngsters into other water-based sports such as rowing, diving, surfing, water polo and even synchronized swimming.

But what really makes Swim Strong remarkable is that it is powered entirely by volunteers. Not only does the free labor keep the cost of lessons down to a minimum—$265 for 17 one-hour beginner’s lessons; $300 for 17 two-hour competitive training sessions—but it has created a community in which older children take responsibility for the education of their younger peers.

“There’s a circle of life going on here,” said Slevin. “We’re helping to create balanced, dedicated children who in turn will become productive, active members of their community, and you can see it happening with the young men and women who come back to volunteer.”

Woodside roots

The Swim Strong Foundation has a long reach, making use of pools in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, and Far Rockaway High School, and including participants from points beyond and between.

It’s roots, however, are planted firmly in Woodside, where Slevin got her first taste of competitive swimming nearly a half century ago as a member of the St. Sebastian’s CYO Swim Team.

“I had the good fortune to swim for Helen Coyne, who was an absolute icon in the annuls of CYO swimming,” Slevin said of her mentor, whose team at one point won 150 consecutive meets and 14 straight Diocesan championships. “When I got too old to compete, [Coyne] said, ‘why don’t you come back and help out.’ And I’ve been coaching at St. Sebastian’s ever since.”

Slevin said that Swim Strong grew directly out of that experience.

“First of all, we have boys and girls programs, but while the two teams are distinct from one another, it didn’t make sense to keep the programs separate from a practice point of view, because finding pool time is always a struggle.”

“Then, over time,” she continued, “young men and women kept sharing with me how important the (St. Sebastian’s) teams were to them as youngsters—how it put them on a good path and how they were able to take it forward in their lives. The more I would hear those messages— the more I would think that I needed to do something more.”

First safety, then fun

One of the Slevin’s long-term goals is to address the pattern of drowning deaths that she said occur at city beaches every summer.

To that end, Swim Strong offered a series of swimming lessons at the pool at Far Rockaway High School last spring, hoping to promote water safety among children who live nearest to the ocean.

“You can’t really learn to swim in the ocean,” said Slevin. “You need a controlled environment. But pool time is hard to find and lessons can be expensive. We hope that we can make learning to swim more accessible to members of the Rockaway community.”

Meanwhile, Slevin hoped that by combining basic swim lessons with a competitive program and an introduction to other sports would keep new swimmers in the water. In particular, she said, competitive swimming offers youngsters a model that will serve them throughout their lives.

“It takes self-discipline and perseverance,” observed Slevin. “You spend a lot of time and effort trying to break your best time, and then you get there. It also teaches resiliency— there’s always going to be a faster swimmer, and you have to learn to appreciate in your loss another swimmer’s win.”

Culture of volunteerism

Araujo’s older son Devontae exemplifies Swim Strong’s ideals. This season, the 13-year-old was named MVP of the LIAM Swim Team— based out of Our Lady of Lourdes in St. Alban’s—and according to his mother, he is as swim-crazy as they come.

But while Devontae is obsessed with improving his strokes and lowering his times, he spends the first hour of his Saturday mornings at the beginner’s end of the pool, helping less experienced swimmers get comfortable in the water.

“Do you know how hard it is to get a 13-year-old boy out of bed at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday morning?” asked Devontae’s mother. “That he does it to volunteer his time to help others, that’s really a credit to what’s going on here.”

Indeed, the spirit of volunteerism and community starts at the top. Rather than use Swim Strong as an opportunity to strengthen her swim teams at St. Sebastian’s, Slevin has reached out across the Queens swimming community, opening the foundation up to rival teams.

Take Devontae Araujo’s swim coach at LIAM, for example. When David Mobley retired from the Army after 26 years of service, he set out to become active in his community. He volunteered as an assistant coach for the LIAM swim team, but when the team’s head coach retired, Mobley found himself in charge of the program.

That was fine with him, except for one thing: He didn’t know much about swimming.

“When I started, I could swim maybe one lap,” he said. “Not only has Shawn helped me with the finer points of swimming, so I can impart them to my kids, I’ve also learned how to really swim.”

Mobley has made LIAM one of St. Sebastian’s fiercest rivals. In turn, Mobley has dedicated himself to Swim Strong, spending his Saturday mornings helping the competitive swimmers train

Fund-raising for the future

Slevin’s ultimate goal for Swim Strong is to become a global organization.

“Drowning is an issue all over the world,” she said, “and I don’t think there’s anything like our model. I’ve been asked to set up a program in Seoul, South Korea. That tells me there’s a need. As far as we haven’t licked our drowning problems here, it may be worse elsewhere.”

That’s long-term thinking, however. In the immediate, Slevin is focused on finding funding to keep Swim Strong going strong in New York.

This year, noted Slevin, Swim Strong has offered scholarships to 29 children who were not able to meet the cost of lessons. Slevin has recognized the local businesses that have made the scholarships possible on Swim Strong’s website, which gets thousands of hits every day.

While Slevin plans to go back to Far Rockaway High School this April, she said she was recently informed by the school that Swim Strong would have to come up with more insurance money.

Meanwhile, she would like to find a larger funder or funders, help ensure that Swim Strong is able to continue operating into the future.

For now, Swim Strong is making do with its army of volunteers.

Andreea Voinea, an 18-year-old senior at Cardozo High School is one of them. Voinea swam for Slevin as a member of St. Sebastian’s Swim Team, but stopped competing four years ago. Still, she shows up every Saturday morning to help out.

“Shawn is the most hardworking person I know,” said Voinea. “She makes all this happen through her work, and people need to step up and help out.”

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