Area swimming clubs get a boost from Michael Phelps' brilliance

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John McPoland
Wednesday, September 10, 2008

As American swimmer Michael Phelps splashed his way through the spectacularly designed Beijing Water Cube en route to an unprecedented eight Olympic gold medals, the ripples from his powerful strokes were already being felt in the United States.

Phelps, unquestionably the biggest star of the 29th Summer Olympics, caught the fancy of the American TV audience—NBC’s week one Beijing TV ratings prove that.

During the half-hour that Phelps raced for his eighth gold medal, NBC had 39.9 million viewers. More people were interested in that relay than in finding out the next “American Idol” or winners of this year’s Academy Awards.

And the interest has spilled into the pools of swimming clubs all across America as parents and youngsters have discovered the sport—a phenomenon that generally happens during every Olympic year, but nothing like the sensational wave created by Phelps.

“I think it happens every four years, but USA Swimming is expecting bigger things because of what Michael Phelps did,” said Eric Rhodes, Janesville Parker High School’s boys swim coach and recently the acting head coach of the South Central Swim Team. The Janesville-based club just hired John Sedgwick as its new head coach.

“People couldn’t wait to get home at night and watch Phelps,” Rhodes said. “It drew me back to when Mark Spitz swam. I followed every swim that he did. It took me back to those days when I was a kid swimming competitively.

“Kids are watching Michael Phelps, and they want to do what he does.”

The Janesville club had 76 members last year, including 15 from the Delavan area. Based on telephone calls from curious parents, Rhodes expects more than 100 members this season. The club held its first gathering last night at the Parker High School pool.

“I have had a lot of inquires from parents,” Rhodes said. “I’ve fielded 40 of those calls in the last month. I’m excited that swimming is back. What Phelps did for swimming is incredible.”

USA Swimming, the sport’s national governing body, already is anticipating the largest post-Olympic membership rush in its history. Club membership nationwide spiked 7 percent in 2004 after Phelps’ six-gold performance in Athens, the highest single-year gain for the organization in more than 10 years.

The highest bump ever came in 1993 after the Barcelona Games when membership climbed 10 percent. The Atlanta Games boosted membership 8 percent and the Sydney Games provided a 5 percent push. There are more than 2,700 sanctioned swim clubs across the country.

Cheri Zimdar, head coach of the Whitewater-based J-Hawk Aquatic Club, also expects to attract more members to the organization founded by her mother, Joan Domitrz, in 1991.

“I think it’s definitely going to make an impact on just about every club in the area, especially with boys,” Zimdar said. “The excitement of the sport has been created because of Michael Phelps.

“In typical Olympic years, you get more participation. Olympic years create a whole new atmosphere. But it’s been a long time since everybody has been looking at one swimmer the way they’re looking at Michael Phelps. Every club in the area is going to be affected.”

It’s a long road, however, from the basic introduction to the sport to international success.

In Janesville, the club, which has Sedgwick as head coach and four assistants, is divided into three levels.

Beginners start out in a stroke development group where they learn technique and fundamentals.

The next level is divided into various age groups in which the swimmers focus on conditioning.

The third level is open to middle school- and high school-age swimmers with the emphasis on actual competition in USA Swimming-sanctioned meets around the state and region.

The annual fees range from $240 (including pool fees) for a 27-week stroke development program to $750 (including pool fees and a $50 USA Swimming fee) for those in the junior and senior level. The swimmers in the competitive program also must pay nominal event entry fees at competitions, usually about $2 per event.

Club members log substantial time in the water. The beginners swim four nights a week. The older club members swim as many as eight or nine times per week.

“As a parent, I want my kids to swim for two reasons,” Rhodes said. “One, they will be in better condition for whatever sport they ultimately decide to get into.

“Two, it’s for safety. I feel confident when my children are in a swimming situation or get invited to go somewhere where swimming will be going on.

“My youngest girls are 7 and 8, and some days they don’t like swimming. My oldest daughter is 11. When she’s 15, she can be a lifeguard and get a job.”

Don’t expect to see every club member thrashing in the pool at the same time. The club staggers the pool times for the members. Rhodes, however, is already wondering how to accommodate 100 or more members if his preseason estimates are accurate.

“Everyone says it’s a nice problem to have,” Rhodes said.

Last updated: 10:13 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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