Swim for Life Camp returns to Cohox for another season of instilling skills in and beyond the pool
By Melissa Komar
It’s 9:30 a.m. and the sound of a whistle echoes off the brick walls surrounding Cohox Pool.
A single swimmer no older than 9 years old races through the water as Peg Fredlund paces down the pool deck beside her shouting words of encouragement.
“Breathing is overrated,” she can be heard shouting over the splash of the water. “You can breathe when you’re done.”
And, so starts a session of time trials during a Thursday morning workout at Swim for Life Camp at the Port Richmond pool and recreation center.
The Philadelphia Parks and Recreation program was created in the 1990s by former aquatics director Charles Wagner, according to Lisa Whittle, program coordinator for aquatics for Philly Parks and Rec.
At its peak, 12 facilities offered the six-week camp to youth throughout the city.
Now, Cohox is one of two remaining facilities, along with Lee Cultural Center, that runs the program.
The number of children who participate has decreased, with 32 enrolled at Cohox this summer, but the mission remains the same: to encourage children to participate in aquatics programs in a safe and healthy environment while teaching sportsmanship through physical activity.
Listening to Fredlund, a water safety instructor 2 for Parks and Rec who runs the camp at Cohox, and her assistant, Cristina Carrasco, a water safety instructor 1, the impact on the children is more broad.
“They are taught respect, too,” Carrasco said. “If there’s an issue between the kids, we teach them the pros and cons of different ways of handling the situation.”
“We teach them how to get along with each without anger and how to deal with petty issues without anger,” Fredlund added. “You can’t judge a kid by how they act because you don’t know what’s going on at home. Swimming helps direct negative behaviors in positive ways.”
Physical training is just as important as mental development.
Participants go through a rigorous stretching program for a half hour prior to swim and then they hit the water for at least an hour.
Depending on their age, campers might swim more than a mile in an hour.
Time trials are held throughout the week, and each swimmer is challenged to beat their previous times and compete with times of swimmers in their lane.
Relay races are a frequent activity and older swimmers team up with younger swimmers.
Campers learns all four competitive strokes and side stroke and elementary backstroke.
In addition to participating in an hour of swimming five days a week, campers receive breakfast and lunch, participate in educational activities and go on field trips.
The most recent trip was to a local farm.
“It’s about taking them to places they don’t normally get to go living in an urban community,” Fredlund said. “Maybe two or three of them know about farming and where their food comes from. And everyone learned how to pick fruit and vegetables and take it home. Not only did they get to see where their food comes from, they got to taste it fresh.”
Fredlund and Carrasco also give the campers “classroom” type projects to make the camp educational.
While there’s more than just swimming going on at the Swim for Life Camp, it remains the life-altering factor.
Tailored for kids ages 9 to 15, many of the older kids leave the program and go on to become lifeguards, which, according to Fredlund, is one of the impacts of the program.
Of the five oldest and longest participating campers, four plan on or are considering taking the American Red Cross lifeguarding course after finishing this summer’s camp.
Charles Langey, 15, is participating in his sixth season at the Swim for Life Camp.
Charles came to the camp after almost drowning, but now, it’s all about improving his skills.
“My mom wants me to be a lifeguard and so do I,” he said.
Fishtown resident Gillian Plizak, 14, is a five-year veteran of the camp.
“At first it helped me to learn to swim, but then I actually joined Miss Peg’s swim team at Germantown,” she said. “After that it was really about improving and making friends.”
Gillian also plans to become a lifeguard.
For Port Richmond resident Maxwell Bryson, 15, socialization is the most rewarding aspect of the camp.
“For me, Swim for Life is an excuse to get out the house and make some new friends,” he said. “If I wasn’t at Swim for Life, I’d be on my phone all day. Swimming is just a way for me to cool off, make friends and get stronger.”
The staff at Cohox is another example of the camp’s impact: Two of the current lifeguards participated in Swim for Life.
Nichole Snyder, 23, has spent her entire nine years as a certified lifeguard at Cohox Pool and participated in the Swim for Life Camp from ages 9 to 15.
Although there were different instructors and different outlooks, the lessons learned were similar to those instilled in campers today.
“It taught us more than just swimming. It taught it to be respectful,” she said. “You hung out with everyone. It didn’t matter who you were. It was like a swim team. If one person did something, we all did it. It was very family-oriented.”
The greatest lesson Snyder learned, one that Fredlund still teaches, was don’t judge a book by its cover.
“I was taught that at home, but even more so here,” Snyder said, “because you met people from different areas. You had to get to know everyone. No matter who you were, we were a family. Acceptance was very important.”
Katie Klenk, 19, has worked at Cohox as a lifeguard for three summers and participated in Swim for Life from the ages of 9 to 15, and also had different instructors.
“Swim camp was always fun,” she said. “My first year, you couldn’t stop. You counted down your laps, you put your head down and you just swam.”
Swimming became an outlet for Klenk: when she was deciding on where to go to college, she often went swimming to clear her mind.
And while campers are always racing the stopwatch, ultimately, extending the impact beyond the pool, much like Klenk’s experience, is the goal.
“The kids leave confident in their ability to swim and are proud of themselves for achieving not only in swimming, but in life,” Fredlund said.