Learn to swim programs grow in Miami-Dade as teams strive for past glories

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.

Robert Strauss, founder and teacher at the swim school, Swim Gym, who has taught more than 45,000 kids to swim in more than 30 years, said he notices the same trend.

“We’re a football, baseball and basketball community with little professional swimming because kids only learn [to swim] so they don’t drown,” said Strauss, who competed with Mexico’s National Swim Team in the 1972 Olympics at Munich. “Teaching to not drown becomes the motive instead of let’s teach to swim so you could scuba, snorkel, kayak, sail, or compete. If you teach them only to not drown, they get bored.”

But drowning is still a problem.

Jim O’Connor, aquatic safety coordinator for Miami-Dade County’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces, and co-chair for the county’s Drowning Prevention Coalition, said that drowning is the No.1 cause of death for children under 5 in Florida.

Miami-Dade and Broward lead the state in the number of drowning deaths per year. In Miami-Dade alone, an average of 45 deaths per year are caused by drowning, O’Connor said.

At the Venetian Pool in Coral Gables, where swim classes have been offered since 1958, W.H.A.L.E. tales — Water Habits Are Learned Early — are part of the swimming classes.

Instructor Sonia Dallas has taught there for more than 25 years. The pool doesn’t cancel lessons if it’s raining; instead, it offers dry lessons, which include safety drills and dry strokes.

“We don’t only teach swimming, we teach water safety,” she said.

At Swim Gym, which operates out of the Jewish Community Centers in Miami Beach, Kendall and Aventura, Strauss teaches water safety by helping kids feel confident in the water, through play. He and staffers set up the pool with different stations such as water polo, logrolling, and a boogie board attached to a string, powered by a machine, that drags the kids along the water’s surface.

Approximately 545 children are enrolled in Swim Gym this summer, and about 12,000 children are enrolled in the county’s learn-to-swim programs annually.

County instructors are trained by the American Red Cross. Classes range from about $10 to $60 through the county, depending on the time of day and location, according to O’Connor.

“Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen an increase [in the number of participants enrolled],” O’Connor said about Miami-Dade’s swimming and water safety lessons, offered since the 1960s.

Poppell at Gulliver is witnessing the same growth. There were fewer than 100 active members when he inherited the swim club; now there are 260.

“I think it comes back to the coaches being able to motivate and inspire kids in the sport,” said Poppell. “Coaches need to show what’s out there, because if they believe they can achieve something, then they wouldn’t stop swimming.”