Olympic Aspirations Flourish on Manhattan’s Upper East Side

George Delacorte Pool at Asphalt Green. Photo Courtesy: Poby/Asphalt Green

BY Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

For those unfamiliar with the signature shape of Asphalt Green’s primary athletic facility—the hyperbolic arch of New York City’s once-abandoned, now landmarked, Municipal Asphalt Plant—it may come as a surprise that the athletic complex on Manhattan’s Upper East Side houses, bar none, the city’s finest age group swim program. Asphalt Green Unified Aquatics, or AGUA, first burst into national prominence in 2012 with the extraordinary success of Lia Neal, who captured Olympic bronze at the London Games as a member of the U.S. 4×100-meter freestyle relay team.

Ms. Neal, who went on to an outstanding swimming career at Stanford and a silver medal last year at the Rio Olympics, is not the only star that has shone brightly for AGUA. Under the aegis of head coach David Rodriguez, Asphalt Green has established a record of success that would be remarkable under any circumstances, let alone in the nation’s largest city, where pool and practice time are constrained by real estate realities and the hyper-populated schedules of young New York City athletes.

To tell the story of AGUA’s success, one must first put its programs in context. At its core, Asphalt Green is a community organization devoted to improving the lives of city residents. Affordable programs and numerous opportunities for young and old alike underpin a commitment to aquatic accessibility for all.

Founded in 1984 by Dr. George E. Murphy and his wife Annette, who led the fight to preserve the historic asphalt plant sited amid luxury high-rises, the non-profit has evolved into arguably the city’s finest sports, swim, and fitness organization, spanning locations both on the Upper East Side and in Battery Park City, at Manhattan’s downtown tip.

agua-kids-june-17

Photo Courtesy: Poby/Asphalt Green

“Asphalt Green’s mission is to bring sports and fitness opportunities to New Yorkers of all ages and skill levels,” said Executive Director Maggy Siegel. “With our swim programs, we look to connect the dots to allow kids from all backgrounds the chance to develop into competitive athletes.”

According to Siegel, who has led Asphalt Green since 2014, there are a variety of entry points for young swimmers to follow in the wake of Neal’s success.

“Our Waterproofing Program provides free swim lessons to thousands of at-risk kids every year; our Swim League fine-tunes technique and prepares kids to try out for our competitive team; and our competitive team, AGUA, which includes many athletes on scholarship, allows swimmers to compete at the national level.”

Embodying AGUA’s mission in the form of a squad that stands as one of the top 40 youth swimming programs in America is David Rodriguez’s job. A native Floridian who swam competitively at UNLV before coaching at Miami’s Pine Crest School, Rodriguez is shrewd and insightful about the challenges facing young swimmers in Manhattan, where there are numerous obstacles to success, including precious little pool time.

“We understand when there’s something in front of us, we’re not going to sit there and pout about it,” he said last month on the Asphalt Green pool deck. “We’re going to figure out a way to make it work.”

“We start practices at 5:30 p.m. When I was at Pine Crest, we’d start at 4 p.m. We’ve had to find some creative ways to balance out the schedule to make that work. But our expectations for our athletes are the same as if I was back in Miami. They made a commitment to our program, especially at the highest levels, and we expect them to be able to meet [those commitments].”

When compared to suburban rivals in New Jersey and on Long Island, AGUA—with a relatively small footprint—has to fight for attention in a crowded youth entertainment market. But Rodriguez’s squad has a huge advantage over many other New York City programs—one of the few Olympic-dimension pools in the city.

This single attribute gives Asphalt Green a competitive edge; however, it takes exceptional coaching to produce Olympians, which is where Rodriguez comes in.

A testament to both his skills and the program’s stability, AGUA has continued to improve since Lia Neal’s coach Rachel Stratton-Mills left in 2015 for other coaching opportunities. Last year—for the first time in program history—Asphalt Green placed first at a regional Junior Olympics competition, beating the Long Island Aquatic Club, also a first for the Manhattan team.

Rodriguez acknowledges that much of the success he has enjoyed at AGUA is due to the strength of the organization.

“When you work for an organization like Asphalt Green—the infrastructure, the support, the fact that we’re here at a 50-meter pool in Manhattan—other teams don’t have that,” he said. “And that culture of hard work, dedication and trying to be successful is built into these kids’ DNA.”

“I originally took the job for love,” continued Rodriguez, who moved to New York City in 2009 with Alana Berrocal, whom he married in April, “but the reason that I’ll stay for a long time is the mission. As far as all the people we teach how to swim, and all the non-profit work that we do, that, along with our commitment to excellence in the sport is something that will keep me here.”

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Photo Courtesy: Poby/Asphalt Green

Anchoring AGUA’s high level of achievement is a pair of 15-year-old prospects for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. In any other setting, Isabel Gormley and Sophia Zhang would be typical Manhattan high schoolers, focused on their studies at The Brearley School and the Trinity School, respectively. Under Rodriguez’s tutelage, they are actively following Neal’s path, with a real shot at the greatest prize for any swimmer: a berth on the U.S. Olympic squad.

Both practice six times a week and are therefore fortunate to live relatively close to Asphalt Green. Gormley, who has swum with AGUA since she was seven, has worked with Rodriguez for the last five years and idolizes Neal, whose records top the program’s record board that overlooks the pool.

“She’s a two-time Olympian—her path has always amazed me,” Gormley says of Neal. “And she’s such an inspiration. When she first made the Olympic team, I said:’ I want to be at trials in four years.’”

Last year at a New York City meet, Gormley achieved her goal: a qualifying time for U.S. Olympic Trials in the 400 Individual Medley, which she described as “the best moment I’ve ever had.”

“Everyone on my team, they were running up and down on the side of the pool with me on my last 100. It was the most amazing experience.”

Zhang, who can easily walk to the pool from her home on the Upper East Side, is a specialist in the 100-meter breaststroke. She has been at Asphalt Green since 2012, and is particularly attached to the support of teammates in what is largely an individual pursuit: perfection in the pool.

“We’re a really close team and we count on each other,” she said. “I’ve been on the relays with the same girls [for years].”

“It definitely is an individual sport. You’re always counting on yourself to make the right choices. But in the end I really couldn’t do it without these people. They’re the ones cheering for you and pushing you in practice.”

Echoing perhaps a key point from her coach, the high school freshman expresses a remarkably mature insight: “I just want to be the best version of myself.”

Leave it to Rodriguez to put this all in perspective.

“We’re very process-oriented, looking to get a little better every day, then looking back five years from now and saying, ‘Wow, look at what we’ve done,’” he said.

“We look to instill that in our athletes, our parents, our administrators—everybody that’s associated with our program. I never promised to get us from fortieth to first in a month. But what I have said is that we need to slowly but surely get better every day.”

2 Comments

2 comments

  1. Allen Wone

    Lehman college also has 50m 8 lanes just like asphalt green. Last i checked the bronx is still part of nyc

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      Ah, there you go! Will correct this..

Author: Michael Randazzo

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Michael Randazzo is a freelance contributor at Swimming World focusing on water polo. He covers polo all over the United States for SW and other publications, including the Collegiate Water Polo Association, Skip Shot, The New York Times, Total Water Polo, Water Polo Planet and others. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children and roots for St. Francis Brooklyn polo.

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