Kentwood — For Henry Zurida, becoming a swimmer all started with a girl.
The East Kentwood High School junior explained. “Her name is Vi, and she wanted to introduce me to swimming. I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m down for that’.”
Henry, whose family is from Mexico, always wanted to learn to swim, but never had the opportunity. “Nobody in my family really knows how to swim,” he said. “My mom knows the basics, how to stay afloat, but other than that, nobody.”
Encouraged by junior and accomplished swimmer Thou-Vi Nguyen (Vi), Henry signed up last summer for a class at East Kentwood Aquatics Center. He sometimes pretended to be a teacher among the younger children while learning alongside them, and “feeling a little embarrassed.” At first he couldn’t swim at all, but he kept practicing, becoming more comfortable and soon found himself loving the water.
He tells his story on a Thursday afternoon as he gathers with the boys’ swim team in anticipation of their meet against Grandville High School. Henry, now a team member, is working hard to develop his backstroke. He also played water polo in the fall, volunteers with the elementary swim program and has even become a certified lifeguard.
“I was scared,” he said of racing. “I was nervous at first, but then it almost got to be an excited feeling. I was excited to compete against other people and show what my practice could do if I kept working.
“I know I’m not the fastest in the pool – I’m pretty slow right now, but it’s nice seeing me improve every day.”
A Pool for Everyone
The East Kentwood High School Aquatics Center is a busy place. It’s home to the Falcons’ middle and high school swimming, diving and water polo teams, and to a community swim team.
It’s where children take swim lessons, learn water safety and participate in physical education swim units. Teenagers train to be lifeguards and athletes work to rehabilitate injuries in the pool. Community members come for early morning lap swims and evening water aerobics. Even Santa has been known to take a dip.
“I want every drop of water in here used by someone,” said Joey Sutherlin, director of aquatics and district safety training.
Henry’s story isn’t that unusual in the most diverse district in the state. Sutherlin said the center is where many students — with no previous exposure to swimming — get into the pool for the first time. It’s a joy to see them progress, he added.
‘Regardless of stereotypes, there is no boundary. There is no ethnic background, religious background that cannot be successful in the water.’— Joey Sutherlin, director of aquatics and district safety training
Junior Zach Kwekel is another example. Zach had very little experience with swimming when he decided to become a diver “to try something new” last summer.
Now he’s perfecting his forward double and inward somersault dives. He also joined the water polo team.
It takes commitment to operate and maintain a district pool. Kentwood has kept the pool open and its operations afloat over the years; Sutherlin said annual maintenance on a competition pool is between $100,000-$115,00 a year. Some districts, eyeing steep repair price tags, energy costs and low demand — Godwin and Wyoming public schools for example — have opted to shutter their doors, empty and demolish pools over the last few decades. Kent City closed its pool during the pandemic and opted to not reopen; it has since been demolished.
Kentwood however, renovated the Aquatic Center in 2006, reconfiguring the competition pool area and adding the warming pool. It is solely operated by the district, Sutherlin said.
‘There is No Boundary’
In teaching students from many cultures and backgrounds to swim or even just equipping them with basic water safety skills, the district is helping address a disparity that has had dangerous consequences. According to findings of a parent survey released in December from Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, racial and ethnic disparities in swimming skills found across generations have impacts including higher levels of drowning among Black children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black children ages 10-14 drown in pools at rates over seven times higher than white children.
Sutherlin’s mission is to help every child learn to swim.
“Regardless of stereotypes, there is no boundary. There is no ethnic background, religious background that can not be successful in the water,” he said.
While Sutherlin is thrilled to see students go from unable to swim to being competitive swimmers, his main priority is centered on safety.
“We try to offer and afford opportunities,” he said. “If your mom or dad are afraid of the water, you’re not going to be exposed to as many opportunities.
“We want students to feel safe so we can get them to progress. I want every one of them to feel that if their best friend invites them to their cottage in the summer, they can feel safe in the water.”
Sutherlin said he’s seen many students go from timid to confident in the water. Refugee high school students, from countries spanning the globe, often join “learn to swim” classes. They catch on quickly and are soon volunteering with younger students involved in the fifth-grade water safety course, he said.
Sutherlin also helped an injured football player learn to swim and go on to compete in swimming and water polo, and in terms of sheer numbers, all fifth-graders from the district’s 10 elementary schools attend a water-safety program, meaning a lot of students learn to swim at the center each school year.
“You will not go to another pool and see this level of diversity,” he said, gesturing to the girls polo team, which was practicing. It includes players of many different races.
Sutherlin, one of the district’s few essential workers during the pandemic, had time to think of how to readjust schedules, modify programs and bring people back in, to reach students and families even more. They’ve readjusted times to bring in more seniors for water aerobics, and host $1 nights for elementary schools and families. They’ve also restarted an annual Toys for Tots fundraiser — the event Santa comes for — and will host a pool egg hunt this spring.
Sutherlin said, “The pools are necessary, if not invaluable. A school pool can open so many doors.”
It did for Henry, who found his passion at the Aquatic Center — and impressed Vi.
“She’s pretty impressed with how short of time it took me to learn to swim,” he said with a laugh.