By Jeff Commings
PHOENIX, Arizona, September 17. WHEN you think of the areas of the United States with large numbers of age-group swimmers, where would your fingers automatically point to on a map? Certainly most of California and a good portion of Florida are safe bets.
But what about Illinois?
According to numbers released by USA Swimming, the state of Illinois has the second-largest Local Swimming Committee in the country, with 20,242 year-round athletes registered with Illinois Swimming. Having Chicago’s 2.7 million residents within its borders has helped the state rank number two among LSCs for the past five years. It should come as no surprise that the Southern California LSC, which includes Los Angeles and Las Vegas, remains at the top of the list with 22,245 members. Pacific Swimming (made mostly of the San Francisco Bay Area) is well back in third with 17,425 members, and Florida holds on to fourth with 11,264.
Having the third-largest city in its boundaries is certainly a boon for Illinois Swimming, but population does not easily guarantee high numbers. The Metropolitan LSC, which includes New York City and all its 8 million residents, only has 10,311 year-round members. Officials with Illinois Swimming mentioned a number of tangible and intangible factors that has kept the LSC high on the list. Certainly the success its homegrown athletes such as Matt Grevers, Conor Dwyer and Kevin Cordes have seen at the collegiate and Olympic level can be counted as a large catalyst for inspiring youth into discovering swimming.
Officials are quick to recognize the efforts by its parent organization (USA Swimming) to get more kids into swimming across the country, and Illinois is just one LSC that is getting the rewards of that marketing push.
“The popularity of the sport through Michael Phelps has been amazing,” said Pam Lowenthal, the administrative director for Illinois Swimming. “Plus, we’re getting more television coverage, which keeps the sport visible.”
But there’s a lot of work done within the LSC that is getting kids into competitive swimming. First, Illinois Swimming, like other LSCs across the United States, offers an outreach program to children on free or reduced-price lunch programs at school. Those kids can join USA Swimming for only $10 (a $40 savings in 2013), and so far 200 people in Illinois are using that program, Lowenthal said.
The state has also increased the number of championship meets, giving athletes more opportunities to swim at a high level and thus raising the competition bar in the state. The state high school championship meet continues to be one of the fastest in the country. Last February, Olivia Smoliga set two national high school records, and two years ago, Kevin Cordes and Matt Elliott chased the national high school record in the 100 breast there.
Open water swimming has also become a major draw for Illinois’ perspective athletes. With the lure of competitions in Lake Michigan (including the popular Big Shoulders race), more youngsters are in need of a team for training for these massive swims, and that’s where most of the membership increase can be found, Lowenthal said.
“A lot of kids also come from triathlon, so they come (to USA Swimming teams) for cross training,” Lowenthal said.
Bringing the kids into the sport is one thing. But the challenge, Lowenthal said, is keeping them in swimming as other sports begin to entice them. To that end, Illinois Swimming has pushed for more participation in open water races, even sending athletes to other states for new competition opportunities. And recently, the state sent some of the best 13- and 14-year-old athletes to train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. And in an attempt to bring a more diverse population into the sport, a “multicultural diversity event” was held and attracted large numbers.
Another challenge to retaining swimmers is the lack of pool space, something nearly every LSC faces but few can resolve. Lowenthal said there’s a big push for health clubs to start official USA Swimming teams in their pools, and that’s helping USA Swimming membership grow, as well as health club registrations.
“Health clubs are being requested, or even pressured, to have competitive clubs,” Lowenthal said. “And now these clubs coming into different areas and starting satellite teams.”
Despite the challenges, Illinois Swimming appears to be thriving in the heart of the Midwest, and doesn’t appear to show signs of slowing down.