Four years ago Henry Alfaro, then age 11, saw a lanky guy do what no other athlete had ever done at the Summer Olympics. He watched Michael Phelps win eight gold medals in swimming at the Beijing Olympics.
Henry saw that swimming could be as cool as the big sports like basketball and football and started training at the Miami Dade College pool in Kendall. Phelps’ further five medals in London two weeks ago, which made him the most decorated Olympian in history, made Henry’s eyes pop.
“I want to be an Olympics swimmer like Michael Phelps and win as many gold medals as he has,” he says from the pool deck on a recent afternoon practice day.
Henry, now 15 and entering his sophomore year at John A. Ferguson Senior High School in West Kendall, is one of many who are discovering the sport of swimming. Local teams, learn-to-swim programs for kids and Masters’ programs for adults are all fielding calls from would-be Olympians or couch potatoes motivated to jump in.
“Once every four years we go through this wondrous finding of a sport that has been in existence since the first Olympics,” says Big Gator Swimming coach Peter Prins, a 36-year coaching veteran in South Florida swimming. “You get a lot of people the first year or two, then it drops off all of a sudden, and in four years you go through another nascent period.”
Swimming helps develop the lungs and aerobic capacity, motor skills, strength and flexibility. Regular physical activity also reduces the risk of cardiovascular, respiratory and metabolic diseases.
Most competitive teams accept swimmers at age 5 and some stay through college and beyond in Masters swimming programs where there is no age limit. Many teams also have Learn to Swim programs that offer the basics in the four competitive strokes — butterfly, backstroke, breasttroke and freestyle.
“The activity keeps them safe, they learn how to swim, there’s the physical intensity about it,’’ says Denise Alfaro, Henry’s mom. “They need to keep on a rigid schedule and it keeps them off any other stuff that might make them go wrong. It keeps them focused and keeps their grades up.”
There are meets for every competition level at least once or twice a month in the tri-county area. They are as much a thrill for the coaches as well as the competitors.
“People who have produced good high school swimming teams continue to have that fervor,” said Prins, who trains swimmers in Kendall and Cutler Bay. “We don’t know how to stop. It’s 100 degrees on the pool deck and you swelter and that is forgotten. We are doing what we like to do.”
In some cases, the love for the sport is generational. Austin Manganiello, a University of Florida freshman and Palmetto Senior High record holder in the 100-yard backstroke, competed in the Olympic trials in June for a spot on the London team in the 200-meter butterfly (he did not make the team). Austin’s father is Lou Manganiello, a former competitive swimmer and the coach of AK Sharks, a club that trains at Westminster Christian in Palmetto Bay.
USA Swimming, the national governing body of the sport, lists 23 Florida Gold Coast registered teams in Miami-Dade and 21 in Broward. Broward has more 50-meter Olympic pools than Miami-Dade, the standard for international competitions.