City swim club gives kids a lane to better lives

Jul 8, 2015

It’s that time of year when public pools all around the city are filled with water and plenty of Buffalonians eager to cool off and splash around. Throughout the year, a pool at the William-Emslie YMCA is home to a club built around swimming, and it’s challenging some alarming trends amongst minorities.

Seventy percent of African-American children can’t swim, and their rate of drowning is nearly three times higher than their Caucasians peers. These numbers are part of the reason why Coach Michael Switalski founded the Buffalo City Swim Racers. The group’s mission: to develop character among city youth, with a commitment to excellence, families, and neighborhoods, all while creating lifelong swimmers.

Children from the City of Buffalo and City of Buffalo Schools in the pool at the William-Emslie YMCA.
Credit Avery Schneider/WBFO News

What sounds like a pretty daunting task may not be, with the help of a community. Coach Switalski and his staff are teamed up with parents and teachers to form a network around each individual child.

“So they understand that there’s a circle of people, that everybody is involved, and everybody knows what everybody else is doing for this child,” said Switalski.

Children like 10-year-old Jada McGate recognize it.

“We have to keep up our work to get on the swim team,” said McGate, “Because if we don’t, it could mean consequences, like sitting out for the whole practice, or maybe five minutes or ten.”

McGate has been with the swim racers for two years and is advancing through the club’s five skill levels, headed for competitive swimming. Jada’s skills in the water are not the only thing increasing. Her grades in school have been on the rise, too. That is because the Swim Racers require it. In their first year, swimmers have to maintain an 80% grade point average and 90% attendance in school. In year two, they have to exceed it.

Small victories lead up to winning the battle overall, and that's what we want for these kids.

McGate’s mother, Lakisha Champion, says being a part of the club motivates her daughter to keep pushing, and maintain her grades. She says it also provides hope for McGate and her 9-year-old brother Joseph.

“It proves to them that they can do anything that they set their minds to,” said Champion.

Champion says in their neighborhood on Buffalo’s east side, a lot of kids become products of their surroundings – surroundings that include violence, low income households, and failing schools. It is a life Coach Switalski wants to help city youth see beyond.

“The opportunity that we provide is to expand that experience for them and help them understand that there is a larger world, Switalski explained. “Take them down the road hopefully to various colleges where they can compete, not just as college swimmers maybe down the road, but for them to see a college campus and understand that this is a possibility for them.”

As members of the Swim Racers, Jada and Joseph McGate are prime examples of how the club is challenging drowning statistics for minorities. Lakisha says it has made a major impact on their household.

“I have kids that know how to swim,” exclaimed Champion. “Seeing that I don’t know how to swim, if I was falling over in the pool, I know I can count on them to save me.”

The success of the Swim Racers up to this point has been growing. Its pilot program began with only 15 kids in the fall of 2012, and now has more than 130 participating. For the kids, themselves, Coach Switalski says personal success is built on small victories.

“If you go two points better on your test than you did the previous week, that’s a small victory. If you’re now able to not just float on your stomach, but you can float on your back as well, that’s a small victory. All those small victories lead up to winning the battle overall, and that’s what we want for these kids,” said Switalski.

Coach Michael Switalski (center), his staff, and swimmers of the Buffalo City Swim Racers.
Credit Avery Schneider/WBFO News

Even though every aspect of the club is free to its swimmers, there are limitations on what it can do. While other swim clubs are in the water five days a week, the Swim Racers only get three because it is all they can afford. Coach Mike says the club has had conversations with the City about expanding.

“The City of Buffalo is ready for us,” said Switalski. “We’ve had conversations with the park and rec department and they’re ready for us, and we have a school that’s ready to go, and we have coaches that are ready to step in.”

Now it comes down to finding additional funding so that more kids can get in the water, and swim towards a better future.

For more information on the Buffalo City Swim Racers, visit their website. You can also find more statistics on swimming and drowning amongst minorities from USA Swimming.