Story and photos by SYDNEY BULL
The nonprofit USA swimming club offers year-round professional coaching and technique instruction for youth of all ages and abilities, which prepares athletes for every level of competition, including Olympic trials where swimmers qualify for the USA Olympic Team. In Salt Lake City, the team practices at two pool locations, the University of Utah HPER Natatorium and the Steiner Aquatic Center at the Salt Lake City Sports Complex, adjacent to Utah’s campus.
Coaches, parents and club board members commonly say, “It is important for kids to enjoy the sport.” That phrase meshes well with the mission of Swim Utah, which consists of many satisfied members.
Amy Barefield, a University of Utah swim team alumna and assistant swim coach, brings a wide range of experience to the club.
“We do not do a ton of marketing to be honest,” Barefield said. “I know there’s been a lot of debate back and forth. Our intent is to grow strategically; we can’t just do a ton of marketing without having the facilities in place. And the lanes are getting pretty full, so there’s just not enough space at least to get a good quality workout in if we bring in more people. We’ve spent some time purposefully not growing because we do not want to bring new kids in and just frustrate the ones we do have. We want to give everyone a quality experience.”
As a nonprofit organization, Swim Utah relies wholly on fundraisers and donations from outside sources. However, word of mouth serves to market the fundraisers rather well. Besides the general payments from parents that cover the pool fees and the coaches’ salaries, the team relies on fundraising to make sure it has enough in reserve to cover operating costs for about six to three months.
Patrick Nordstrom, a 17-year-old sprinter for Swim Utah, hopes to swim for the U after graduation. But he agrees that he loves the small size of the club because of his great relationship with his coach.
“Swim Utah is not a very big club which is something I really like about it,” Nordstrom said. “Everybody knows everybody. It’s nice to know everyone on a deeper level other than just swimming. You become very closely knit and it’s like we’re all family.”
Swim Utah does not actively market the club mainly because members appreciate the small size. That ensures the quality of coaching each swimmer receives due to the coach-to-swimmer ratio and maintains the best possible environment to improve the current swimmers’ performance.
But the locations at which the swimmers practice also limit the club’s ability to expand. Lane space availability is Swim Utah’s biggest challenge. It is difficult to fit the entire team in one pool, so the more advanced athletes practice at the Natatorium, while the beginner-level groups practice at the Aquatic Center.
Another challenge is the cost of practicing at a college facility. HPER Natatorium is very expensive compared to other facilities, such as high school pools, because it has higher operating fees, limited time slots and prioritizes University needs.
Although Swim Utah faces a few challenges regarding location and size, it does not struggle with maintaining an excellent coaching staff. Head Coach Mark Gray has had a heavy influence on the club’s successes.
“Coach Mark is my high school coach too, and he’s definitely the right coach for me,” Patrick Nordstrom said. “He’s very polite and he understands all of us. He knows what he’s doing, he’s a very experienced, intelligent and awesome coach.”
Coach Amy Barefield said, “Our head coach is a genius. He’s very knowledgeable and very well-read. He is very particular about technique and patient with his swimmers,” she said. “He has led many individuals to the National level too. It’s great to have a passionate group of coaches who have a lot to contribute to the team.”
The Board of Trustees, currently led by Susan Winter, operates Swim Utah. As its president, she takes care of all the fiduciary needs of the organization. Winter is in charge of organizing local meets and fundraising events, supporting the coaches and administering the board. She also manages Swim Utah’s bylaws as they’re written out and helps communicate them to members in regards to how the club operates and what decisions need to be made with the other board members.
A lot of the clubs here in Utah have to work extra hard to catch up with other states that have more investment with the sport because they are a lot faster and more competitive. There are a number of meets that occur throughout the season to help swimmers qualify for the next level of competition and Utah’s time standards have actually gotten faster this year so that they can be more exposed to those faster swimmers outside of the state.
“With the time standards getting faster and faster, a lot of the kids here in Utah are working extra hard to catch up with the other states that are around us,” Winter said. “We have very competitive teams in Arizona and California they have much bigger bases, they have much more significant investment in the sport. One of the things we’re presented with here in Utah is that for kids to really be competitive in this sport they need to be exposed to fast swimmers. You need a large base of swimmers to compete against in order to improve your speeds and recognize improvement. One of the challenges here has been the availability of pool space in order to increase those numbers of swimmers participating.”
The LSC, Local Swimming Committee for Utah, recognized that it wants to increase the Utah state time standards and continue to increase them until Utah is in line with the other states around them.
Swim Utah holds an annual USA Swimming sanctioned fundraiser known as Swim-A-Thon where participants earn money for Swim Utah by swimming as many lengths of the pool in a two-hour period. Participants get pledges from businesses, family members, neighbors and friends before the event and swim the amount of lengths based off how much money they raised. Or swimmers can receive pledges per length and collect the money after the Swim-A-Thon is over. Many people from the community get involved. Even the U swimmers volunteer at the event. The minimum obligation for each family is to raise $150 but usually the club members go over and beyond that.
Cindy Nordstrom is a board member in charge of events, fundraisers and activities.
“Pool rental is premium in this state,” she said. “Basically all the money we raise goes to pay for pool rental here (HPER) and at Steiner.”
To help Swim Utah this year, the public is welcome to donate money to help the club meet operating expenses. This year the Swim-A-Thon will take place May 13, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
“In regards to Swim-A-Thon,” Winter said, “our goal this year is to raise $20,000. That seems like a huge amount, however, our team has exceeded that last year. We’re looking for partnerships and donors within the community and appreciate all donations.”