In a region known for its beaches and year-round bikini season, it’s surprising to discover Miami-Dade County doesn’t thrive in the one activity synonymous with tropical living: swimming.
“Miami used to be a swimming powerhouse,” said Jeffrey Poppell, head coach of the Gulliver Swim Club. “But if you look back, you see individuals, no teams. Even Fort Lauderdale is leap years ahead of Miami swimming.”
In the 1970s and ’80s, Miami was responsible for several swimming world record holders and Olympians – names like Jesse Vassallo, Matt Gribble and the University of Miami’s men’s program.
Poppell, a Jacksonville native who began swimming at 7and has coached for 20 years, moved to Miami from a head coach position at the University of Arkansas. He came, hoping to turn the tide.
“I’ve realized the biggest challenge is trying to change the culture,” said Poppell, who began coaching at Gulliver a year ago. “But I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t think it was possible.”
And what Poppell has noticed, the thing that holds Miami back from mastering the sport, is the swimmers’ and parents’ willingness to make the necessary sacrifices: The early morning workouts. More workouts after school. Travel costs for swim meets.
And the repetition of it all.
“Maybe we don’t take that family vacation for another two months,” he said. “But sacrifices are needed and people aren’t as willing to make those here.”
But then there is Jana Mangimelli, 22, a swimmer from the University of Georgia, who moved to Coconut Grove in December for the opportunity to swim outdoors. . She has sacrificed making money and having free time to pursue her dream of swimming for an international team.
“Swimming is a very expensive sport,” said Mangimelli, who swims for the Gulliver Swim Club and recently finished fifth in the U.S. World Championship Trials in Indianapolis. “There’s no way I can have a job, there’s no time and it’s exhausting. But the older I’ve gotten, the hungrier I get to be successful.”
Jose “Cheo” Fernandez, head coach of the City of Hialeah’s Storm Swim Team since 1998, is familiar with that scenario.
He said swimming requires discipline from parents as well as the kids he coaches because, “attitude is everything, but it’s paved from parent to child.”
Marta Quijada, a mother of two Hialeah Storm swimmers, is used to the strict routine.
“It’s about money and time,” said Quijada, who wakes up at 4:45 a.m. every morning from the family home in Hialeah Gardens, and is also present at the 5 p.m. practice at Milander Park’s pool each afternoon. “Many times I’ve asked myself if I can keep doing this, but it’s their will that makes me keep going.”
Fernandez said he’s also seen swimming dwindle in popularity because athletes in Miami tend to pursue other sports like football, baseball and basketball, where the commitment levels are not quite so intense.
“Swimming doesn’t give the city the same kind of benefits, because it’s not a sport that gives the same amount of promotion,” said Fernandez.