St. Thomas Swim Association Adjusts to New Normal

Ari-El Joshua, a member of the gold team, practices on Monday afternoon. (Source photo by Kyle Murphy)

The St. Thomas Swim Association is finding creative ways to accomplish its mission of teaching members of the St. Thomas community how to swim while keeping their competitive team afloat in the trying times of a global pandemic.

The nonprofit organization waited 20 years for its pool to be finished, starting out with swimming lessons in Magens Bay before moving in October 2006 to its current location in Estate Nazareth just outside of Red Hook. The facility has a 25-meter pool and an office.

The Learn to Swim program is one of the ways the association teaches members of the community to swim. Before the coronavirus, this program was run as group lessons, but due to the pandemic, the focus has shifted to one-on-one lessons.

The Swim Association has established protocols to make sure they can safely hold lessons. Coaches wear masks when teaching, and lessons are limited to two people from the same household.

Luba Dolgopolsky, office manager and a parent of members of the swim team, said there have been benefits to the one-on-one lessons. “It works really well because everyone is getting a lot more individual attention,” she said.

During the pandemic, swimming is a great way to stay active in a safe way, experts say. “Based on what we know about chlorine and other viruses, it is likely safe to be swimming in a properly maintained pool, provided you continue to observe rules of social distancing and proper hand hygiene,” Dr. Cristina Cicogna, an infectious disease specialist at Hackensack University Medical Center wrote recently.

The 25-meter pool awaits the gold team swimmers. (Source photo by Kyle Murphy)

One of the objectives of the Learn to Swim program is to transition kids into one of the organization’s swim teams if they are interested. Once they learn the skill of swimming, joining a team is a way they can continue to progress in a productive environment among their peers.

The swim teams are broken down into three levels. There is an elite gold team, as well as silver and bronze teams. The teams compete in swimming meets locally, regionally and in the mainland United States. Last year the teams traveled as far as Budapest, the capital of Hungary, for a competition. One of the travel opportunities that was canceled due to the pandemic was a meet in St. Croix. The last meet this year was February 22.

The gold team usually travels five times per year while the silver and bronze teams travel three times. Susie Andrews, the coach of the bronze and silver team, said the kids really enjoy the travel opportunities, as it is a way to bond with their peers. When the younger kids travel to their first meet in Puerto Rico they get exposure to what it’s like to be a competitive swimmer.

The Puerto Rico trips are the first time the young swimmers experience big events of more than 600 swimmers, compared to the inter-island events between St. Thomas and St. Croix, which feature around 40 participants. Once a year, St. Croix swimmers travel to St. Thomas and vice-versa.

John Vasbinder, the association’s executive director and coach of the gold team, started coaching in St. Thomas in 2012. Previously he was a coach of the St. Croix Dolphins, and he coached Virgin Islands swimmers who are on scholarships in college, such as Adriel Sanes, Natalia Kuipers, Matthew Mays and Webster Bozzo.

Sanes spoke to the Source back in April about how the pandemic has impacted his Olympic dreams.

The sign for the St. Thomas Swim Association, which is located just outside of Red Hook in Estate Nazareth (Source photo by Kyle Murphy)

Vasbinder said he has high confidence that the swimmers currently in high school have similar opportunities awaiting them at the next level. He has already received calls from college coaches about Max Wilson, and he said he sees a lot of potential in Gabrielle Brunt.

Wilson was slated to be the number one seed in the TYR International Classic in three backstroke events: the 50m, 100m, 200m.

The biggest challenge of COVID for Vasbinder is having to respond “I don’t know” when one of his swimmers asks when their next competitive event will be. The team can still host individual time trials, which can be sent to organizations that rank swimmers regionally, but it’s just not the same as a full meet, he said. This uncertainty is a national issue for swimming coaches. Arizona State swimming and diving coach Bob Bowman announced yesterday that he will make an unprecedented move to redshirt his entire team and forgo this NCAA season, and not compete to focus on the Olympics.

Participants in the Swim Association’s programs, and parents, say they’re pleased with how they’re set up. “One of the reasons I really like working for them is that it is such a positive environment, and I have not heard one negative statement from anyone at the pool since I started to work there,” Dolgopolsky said. “I come into work and we’ve got happy kids, happy teachers, happy swim team members and everyone is just working hard.”

The organization also provides a pool for rehabilitation purposes. They have a weekly class that is focused on aquatic therapy for stroke patients and a partnership with Synergy that allows them to bring their physical therapy patients to the pool.

More information about the association can be found on their Facebook page or by calling 340-779-7872.