Splash on! Local swim scene extends beyond Tampa Bay

The diversity of water fun and fitness opportunities in the Tampa Bay region are as vast as the water it surrounds. From beginners to fitness lovers to up-and-coming Olympians, all find a place. No matter your level of swim prowess, there’s a pool, a program and a body of water beckoning. Let’s dive in.

Youth Swimming -- Seasonal Swim Programs

It’s 8 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, and Coach Patty Nardozzi’s athletes shimmy into the pool at St. Petersburg’s Shore Acres Recreation Center like eager seals. These are the age-groupers, the summer swimmers ages 5 and up, and it’s their third practice in as many days. SPA hooks its budding athletes with this consistent practice program, Nardozzi says, and that interest can lead to a foray into competitive swimming. 

If a kid makes it across the 25-meter pool multiple times unassisted, they’re good to go. Patty and her coaches teach stroke technique and race etiquette. And that tyke whose zigzag backstroke causes him to bounce the lane lines like a pinball? -Not a problem. This is a competitive development program, after all. Everyone has to start somewhere – even three-time Olympic gold medalist Nicole Haislett, who began her career as a SPA swimmer.

“My parents didn’t know the sport was something I would excel at – they just wanted me to be a strong swimmer,” Haislett says.

Her coach saw talent, and soon Haislett was practicing her strokes year-round. SPA nurtures its swimmers deliberately, with an eye against early burnout. Though few (if any) will make it to Haislett’s level, local interest in the sport is undeniable. This summer, SPA swim team numbers nearly reached capacity – and the program offers three daily practice times to accommodate for the influx.

SPA sees such a demand for summer swim that two simultaneous programs exist. One is headed by Nardozzi and other coaches at neighborhood pools; the other is presided over by Coach Bill Burrows at Northeast High School. Tampa Bay Aquatics, Swim Tampa Aquatics, Carrollwood Village Swim Team and local YMCAs also offer competitive, year-round swim teams. 

After an hour of breaststroke, freestyle, backstroke and butterfly, the Shore Acres swimmers hoist themselves out of the water and head to Nardozzi to collect ribbons from the last week’s meet. A seven year-old raises his multicolored stash in the air and shouts, “I’m the champion!” No matter that the ribbons read 6th and 12th place. This is an environment where dreams of swim glory begin.

Swim Lessons -- All levels, beginner to competitor

Somewhere in Tampa Bay, a baby is being tossed into a pool with his clothes on. It’s a shocking scenario to witness, but this is Infant Swim Rescue (ISR), and it’s part of the curriculum. The baby rolls onto his back and floats, waiting, until the instructor plucks him from the pool. Mission accomplished. Specialists like Tampa Swim Babies in Wesley Chapel swear by the method, which seeks to teach children how to survive a fall into the water. ISR lessons are conducted at City and private pools by teachers schooled in the method. 

Traditional lessons are abundant here as well; for many Florida kids, learning to swim is a rite of passage. When it isn’t, help is available at any age. A local elementary school, Bay Vista Fundamental, has a partnership with an adjacent pool and sends students there during the school day for a period each year. Classes fill the schedules at city pools. And there’s hope for the more mature beginner, for whom adult swim lessons reveal truth in the adage It’s never too late to learn.

Adult swimmers are welcome at Tampa Bay Aquatic Masters, where swimmers of all levels train alongside each other. Scott Linebaugh has been involved in the team for about seven years, and describes it as ideal for everyone from the dog paddler to the competitive athlete. Team membership requires that one become part of the U.S. Masters organization, which offers reciprocal privileges at participating pools nationwide.

Masters swimming is more self-directed than the age-group experience, Linebaugh says, and though some collegiate and high school swimmers do participate, a majority of the athletes have never swum competitively. 

“There has to be a coach on deck,” he says, “but the workout is as hard or as easy as you want.”

Niche Swimming -- Endurance events abound

Linebaugh describes Tampa Bay as “an active swimming community” full of all levels of performance -- World Masters champions, budding Olympic qualifiers, hard-working, fitness-minded everymen who swim laps for stress relief. It’s also, he says, a hotbed for niche swims. Take the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim for example, a 24-mile trek that spans the length of Florida’s largest estuary. It’s ranked by Open Water Swimming as one of the top 50 open water swims in America.

There’s the Tampa Bay Frogman Swim, a 5K trek across Tampa Bay, and Swim to Fort Desoto and more. Relays are available for many of the endurance events, so they’re accessible to the long distance swimmer as well as to the recreational weekend warrior. And to swimmers like Linebaugh, who loves his sport but finds 24 miles to be a bit much.

When it comes down to the ultimate reason why Tampa Bay is such a swimming hotbed, Haislett points to multiple factors: strong youth development, optimal weather conditions, all-inclusive masters programs, and a landscape that can’t be beat for inspiration.

“You can swim at Northshore Pool or St. Pete Beach Recreational Center, and dolphins will be jumping in the distance,” Haislett says.“ It’s just a no-brainer to swim in this area.”

Read more articles by Amy Hammond.

Amy Hammond is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida
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