Lending a Helping Hand to Inner-City Swimmers

Feature by Kristen Heiss

COLLEGE STATION, Texas, December 28. TWO years ago, swim coaches Tom Topolski and Butch Briggs sat in a pub in Grand Rapids, Mich., and got to talking about the need for an inner-city swim program in the area. In a city where more than 75 percent of the kids in school qualify for reduced or free breakfasts and lunches, swimming is not a luxury most families in the area can afford. Topolski, a swim coach for 35 years, saw an opportunity to make a difference.

After coming up with the initial idea for starting an inner-city swim program, Topolski and Briggs worked on contacting the superintendent of the Grand Rapids school district as well as Joey Sutherlin, the aquatics director at the Grand Rapids Community College to get help putting their plan into action. Topolski and Briggs found support for their idea through Bob Steele, a consultant for USA Swimming, and John Cruzat, the Diversity Specialist for USA Swimming.

Topolski says that letters and e-mails were sent religiously to the superintendent of Grand Rapids promoting the idea of an inner-city swim league. For Topolski, the determination to see this program through was present throughout the entire planning process.

"Can't wasn't one of the words that ever came up."

The hard work of Topolski and the others involved in the planning was finally rewarded in 2006. One high school pool in the area and the Grand Rapids Community College pool were donated for the inner-city swim league to use. The first year, participants in the swim league were limited to students who qualified for the LOOP program, a program for kids from severely economically-disadvantaged families. For the six-week session, the kids in the LOOP program were transported by bus three times a week to the two pools to practice.

The first year, Topolski says that far more than a practice, these kids needed swim lessons. The four volunteer coaches, Topolski, Briggs, Mike Bauer and Eve Julian, were "in the water constantly" with the kids.

Some of the kids wore cut-off jeans and shorts to swim, and many of them could not put their faces in the water.

"The first year we didn't measure our success in terms of laps, but in terms of feet."

Topolski says at first, some of the kids could barely swim five feet. By the end of the six-week session, all of the kids could swim at least a 25. Topolski was astounded by the improvement made by the kids in the program.

"The talent is there. If people could see what we had at the beginning and what we had at the end, people would say ‘Oh my gosh.'"

When Topolski talks about the kids that participate in the swim program, his passion for helping these kids improve and his desire to provide something special in these young swimmers' lives is clear. For Topolski, the most rewarding part of working with these kids is their appreciation towards Topolski and the other coaches for helping them learn to swim.

"At a lot of levels, parents and kids sometimes take the coaches for granted. But there are certain times where the kids just love it and they love you [the coaches]. It's so easy to bond with kids who appreciate it. They want to be helped."

Topolski also says that the kids' enthusiasm to practice and to improve is unrivaled.

"They are so anxious to get started. They can't wait to get in the pool."

The biggest problem that Topolski encounters working with these kids is the lack of self-esteem that many of them have.

"I think in certain situations kids are always told that they can't do things. After a while, it starts to wear on some kids."

However, after three weeks of hard work in the program, the self-confidence of the kids in the program began to increase as they saw their improvement in the pool. Seeing the improvement of the swimmers certainly impacted Topolski.

"To see that much success in 6 weeks is really cool."

This year, the program is not just limited to LOOP program kids: it has expanded to include all middle-school students in the area who would like to participate. Topolski expects the program to have more than 200 participants this year. With all of the additional swimmers, two new pools will be used for practices this year, and the original six-week program length has also been increased.

Topolski, who is very humble about his contributions and work towards the program, has already impacted the lives of several hundred kids in Grand Rapids in two short years. Topolski, Briggs, Bauer, and Julian, the four coaches of the program, dedicate their time and energy to give kids a chance to swim who would otherwise not have the opportunity to do so.

As Topolski puts it, "From nothing to something is a great thing."

The kids in the inner-city swim program in Grand Rapids are in great need of swim suits, goggles, towels and swimming caps. Donations would be greatly appreciated and can be sent to:

Tom Topolski
5358 Discovery
Kentwood, MI 49508

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