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Swim Schools Replace Traditional Coaching Route for Swim Stars

Feb 18, 2008  - Nikki Dryden

While becoming a swim coach was once the traditional route for retired swimmers, the newest course is to open your very own swim school.

Four-time Olympic gold medalist Lenny Krayzelburg brings not just his name to the Lenny Krayzelburg Swim School in Los Angeles. Lenny lived the American dream as an athlete. Born in the Ukraine his family immigrated to the US due to religious discrimination. As a young teen, life was not easy for Lenny, but by 1995 he became a US citizen and quickly became one of the best backstrokers in the world.

As all who know him see, Lenny is a gentle guy and this comes across in his daily involvement with the school, which offers swimming lessons to children of all ages, some starting as young as 3 months old. Lenny's swim school is closely tied to Jewish Community Centers, they are the pools he uses and the core community he serves. Given his family's reasons for coming to the US, his school epitomizes the American Dream. The core purpose of the LennyK School is "To teach and inspire and to be watersafe." More importantly is the mission, "To provide an environment where everyone learns and enjoy the benefits of swimming, and to help each student increase self-confidence and independence through swimming."

In Brazil, another Olympic medalist, Gustavo Borges, raced with success from the 1992 Olympics where he won his first medal up until his retirement after Athens in 2004. But this kind of success and longevity makes Gustavo a near god in his homeland. An author on swimming, Gustavo has created more than one swimming endeavor out of his own success.

Gustavo runs three main projects: The Gustavo Borges Trophy, Social Project swimming with Gustavo Borges, and the Gustavo Borges Swimming Methodology. "The idea was to do something which I had never been done before, in terms of swimming clinics and presentations," says Gus on his website. "Before the Olympics in Atlanta I decided to do this 'tour' in various cities in Brazil. The objective was to visit locations which I had never been to before and at the same time places in which I could help our sport, swimming."

What he noticed most, was that "Independent of the level of each swimmer, the will to swim was always the same, and that made me very excited about the future of our sport. It is very important to have an inexhaustible passion for what you do."

"I believe that in one way or another I was able to give something back to the sport, and the people who cheered for the Olympic team in Atlanta. Of all the places I went, I returned home knowing I had made new friends. I hope that in the near future, some of the kids I met will tell me that I helped them in some way to become better athletes. When I was little I always had someone to look up to and who helped me get to where I am today. I hope that everyone will reach their goals and never abandon sports, even if it is just to keep in shape and lead a healthy lifestyle."

Meanwhile, in New York City, two world-class swimmers have founded a flourishing swimming school, staffed by champions. In 2002, Lars Merseburg and Casey Barrett created Imagine Swimming. Merseburg, a former member of the German National Team and a Cal Berkeley All-American, and Barrett, a former Canadian Olympian, discovered that America's biggest city was lacking in quality swim instruction. Six years later, their school teaches over 1000 children per week, and their staff has included former US Olympic champion Anthony Ervin and two-time US Olympic silver medalist Erik Vendt. Indeed, in numerous interviews, Vendt has cited his time at Imagine as a major reason for his currently thriving comeback.

While they won't release the names on their roster, the pool deck at Imagine often resembles a red-carpet, filled with bold-faced names straight from the gossip pages. However, the focus is unwaveringly on the fortunate sons and daughters that pack the pool. Those successful parents expect results, but Imagine has its sights set on more than Olympic medals. Says co-founder Lars Merseburg, "We're asked all the time how we plan on developing future Olympians, but that's not our goal. We just want to teach the joy of swimming. Only a few will go on to join teams, but we hope everyone learns to love the water."

While Casey and Lars were the original swim instructors, they now employ 30 teachers and coaches. Having developed a unique teaching method, the "Imagine Method," Lars and Casey believe that fostering a child's imagination while teaching safety and technique, is the key to happy young swimmers.

US Olympic gold medalist Tom Dolan has temporarily relocated to the heart of swimming in Sydney, Australia to hone his skills out of the water. Several years ago, his club coach Rick Curl moved down-under to coach the competitive side of Carlile swimming, the team started by legendary Aussie coach Forbes Carlile. In March of last year, Tom went down for a 2 week visit to see the swim school side of the program and meet with the Carlile directors about the possibility of bringing the infrastructure to the US.

"I liked the model and thought that there was a tremendous opportunity to bring the 'swimming as an asset for life' idea of Carlile to the DC metro area," says Tom, "which is home to one of the largest summer swimming populations in the US."

At the time Tom was working at an investment bank and the idea of "getting back into the sport I have loved my whole life was very intriguing." Tom's effort was not necessarily to find future Olympians, but rather "to provide an opportunity for kids to gain all of the great life skills that swimming provides regardless of skill level."

So Tom left his job as a sales trader at an investment bank in DC last June and began to scout out potential demographic fits in the DC suburbs. By October, Tom was back in Australia to learn about and work within the swim schools, which Carlile has run for 30 years and includes 8 swim school pools all over the Sydney suburbs. "I, Rick Curl and the directors of Carlile are forming a Joint Venture to take the Carlile swim school systemization back to the US. Once I have completed learning all sides of the business I will head back to run the US operations."

While each has taken a slightly different approach, what all these famous swimmers have in common with their swim schools is the way they have used their passion for, and success in the sport to inspire others in a unique way that will last for a lifetime of swimming happiness.