By Michele Graham
Photos by ChiChi Ubiña
The YMCA pool lies behind a shimmering glass curtain of windows. Stand close and you can almost hear the water splashing and laughter bubbling up. The swim programs at the YMCA is vibrant, thriving, and growing stronger. Home to the YMCA Swim School and the Marlins Swim Team, the YMCA has everyone in the pool.
Historically, the Swim School and the Marlins program were not just separate, they competed with each other. With pool time a precious commodity, program directors had to wrestle for every available minute. But today, the Swim School and the Marlins are, should we say, synchronized.
Lauren Chiappetta, Swim School program head since 2016, and Aaron Montgomery, who joined the YMCA as the Marlins head coach in 2017, have developed a supportive connection between the two programs. As Aaron puts it, “We have a common language. Someone who starts in the swim school has a pathway to becoming a successful member of the team long-term.”
Safety first, fun and form soon follow
For the Swim School, with 300+ participants, safety comes first. In 2017, the YMCA rolled out a new national swim instruction program that’s been extremely successful. Once water safety is mastered, children move onto stroke skills. From there, swimmers who want to take their skills to the next level can move into competitive swimming, diving, or water polo.
“We live in a coastal community and want every child to be water safe. We want them to find a happy place in the pool and that starts with the staff,” says Lauren. “We have wonderful instructors who are amazing role models. They help kids overcome their fears and find a mentor in the water.”
Lauren, who holds a master’s in social work and is a former nationally ranked collegiate swimmer, adds, “We’re not your standard program. We think outside of the box for kids who have anxiety, traumatic experiences, or sensory issues. We bring a different flavor. It’s about having a relationship with the kids and them trusting you.”
And unlike other swim programs, the Swim School benefits from two pools. The shining jewel Olympic pool and the warm water Alumni pool. Whereas the Olympic pool is large with a capital L and set at temperatures suited for accomplished and competitive swimmers, the warm water pool is calming and relaxing and an ideal introduction for newbies.
Some of those new swimmers include students from the Waterside School, an independent school in Stamford for economically challenged students, who come to the YMCA twice a week for swim instruction. “This is one of our favorite groups to work with. These kids don’t have an opportunity to learn swimming anywhere else. They come in afraid and leave proficient swimmers. We have so much fun with them. They are the epitome of what we do and why we do it,” says Lauren.
Another innovative program, courtesy of a grant from the Abilis Community Foundation, is Swim Strong Adaptive Swim Lessons for children with special needs. “People think special needs and think keep away from water,” says Lauren. To expose kids to water and teach them water safety, it’s an amazing experience. You need to see the look on their faces. Some who graduate go on to join us in Swim School.”
Making a Competitive Splash
Lauren and Aaron embrace the YMCA’s mission to provide quality programs to all. “I swam for two different Y’s growing up. There’s something to be said for a team with a community personality,” says Aaron. “We’re accessible to anybody who wants to be on a team, and we try to broaden horizons. With higher caliber meets, they get to know what it takes to lengthen their career and swim at the next level or in college.”
Aaron has been teaching and coaching since 1994. He holds two master’s degrees—in education and literacy—and was headed for a PhD in Education. Just as his plans changed, he was offered an assistant coaching position at the powerhouse Badger program. “I’ve been able to find personal satisfaction in helping people get better at any level.”
Lauren couldn’t be more effusive in her praise of the new coach. “Aaron is one of the most phenomenal coaches I’ve seen in action. He is amazing at creating not just good swimmers, but good human beings. He makes kids accountable. He’s the coach who holds you up whenever you need support. His kids love him. Other places weed you out at a young age, it’s negative. You won’t find that here.”
It shows in the results. In 2018, the Marlins boys were 3rd at YMCA Nationals and were awarded a USA Swimming Bronze Medal Club for excellence, making it one of the nation’s top 200 clubs. USA Swimming also named the YMCA a Level 3 Club (Level 4 is the most advanced and achieved by very few). Four of five last year’s graduating seniors are swimming at college. “We can make the program what it needs to be, we can individualize it,” says Aaron.
He adds, “Our numbers are growing. We have what we need in our organization. We have an amazing facility. We have performance that’s getting better and better. If you are looking for somewhere to take you to the next level, we are more than capable of being that for you.
It’s the entire community that makes the YMCA a special place. “Everyone is so supportive,” says Lauren. “I’ve never seen a place so warm and comfortable and that wants the best for each child–whatever that is. We give positivity to kids and they give it back to us. Kids are happy to be here. I’ve never felt this anywhere else.”