It is an average Wednesday night during the summer on the West Island of Montreal. Kids are screaming, parents are cheering, everyone is having a good time. This is the scene all over the West Island, at small pools scattered in almost every neighbourhood. It is the weekly Wednesday night swim meet, filled with kids of all ages and of all levels, competing for fun, and perhaps competing for the first time. The younger ones proudly show off the ribbons they won, while the older ones warmly congratulate them. Coaches are running around, trying not to lose any kids while trying to see all the races. Just another Wednesday night at the pools.
Six months later, it is another average Wednesday night in the West Island, but now during the winter. In indoor pools, kids train, with dreams of something bigger than the ribbon that they won in the summer. They begin to get stronger, faster. Times start to mean something to them. But there is still that joy in them, the love of swimming. Some of their coaches from the summertime are training, too. The little ones look up to them; their summer coaches are so fast. They swim all winter; they planted the seed during the summer and are growing it during the winter. It is an average Wednesday night during the winter in the West Island.
In the West Island, there is an extensive system of outdoor pools. There are about 45 pools, run either publicly or privately. Each belongs to one of three separate divisions: the NAA, Alps, or WISK. Within these divisions, there are swimming and diving meets, water polo games, and synchronized swimming competitions. The kids practise during the week and on the weekend, coached by lifeguards who have usually done the same thing themselves during the summer, and have maybe even gone to the next level during the winter. Swimming lessons are offered, as well as the competitive programs. These pools represent the feeder system for the winter programs.
There are four winter clubs on the West Island: Beaconsfield, Dorval, Dollard, and Pointe-Claire. Even with the close proximity of the four clubs, they all manage to produce competitive and successful teams. Pointe-Claire is a national power with a winning reputation. Five minutes away, Dorval is a small, yet strong team for its numbers. All four of these pools send their coaches to scout the summer swim meets for new talent, the lifeline for these clubs. At the "Big Meets" at the end of the summer, the four clubs have information booths set up in the hopes of attracting the next Curtis Myden or Marianne Limpert to their club.
"The summer pools are wonderful," comments Peter Woodward, head coach of Dorval Swim Club. "The program introduces the kids to competitive swimming, as well as to some of the senior swimmers. The senior swimmers bring their love for the sport and their enthusiasm about swimming to the kids as their coaches during the summer. Then in the winter, there is a familiar face for the kids to look up to."
Any club needs new young talent every year. Looking at the younger groups at these clubs, you see familiar faces from the summer. And if you ask the older swimmers where they got their start, a lot will answer their summer pools. "I learned to swim at my summer pool," remembers one age-group swimmer. "I loved it and I was pretty good. My mom signed me up for the winter. I've been going non-stop ever since."
The parents love the system, too. "Not only does it keep my kids busy during the summer," observed one parent, "but it keeps them in shape, gets them involved. And hopefully it'll keep them active and involved all winter, too. Involved and out of trouble."
The summer pools and the clubs are now starting to offer bursaries to the best and brightest young swimmers. These bursaries are used to help pay the fees of swimming in the winter. They are usually good for only one specific club, and the clubs tend to respect the boundaries of the municipalities. A Dollard pool will give a bursary for the Dollard Swim Club, while Dorval Swim Club focusses on the summer-end competition between the three Dorval summer pools.
Not every swimmer will turn out to be the next Olympic medallist. But encouraging these kids to participate in sports, no matter what their level of talent, is a goal fulfilled by the system in the West Island. Participation and fun is the priority of the summer system. The challenge of the winter clubs is to keep the kids motivated and having fun in a more competitive atmosphere. Both work hard to promote swimming and encourage the kids to go as far as they want in the sport.
On an average Wednesday night in the West Island, any time of the year, you can be sure that there are droves of kids, swimming their hearts out, participating in a sport that they love.