This year as a part of Noozhawk’s After-School Activities Guide, we decided to help parents get a handle on some of the back-to-school chaos by conducting a series of Q&As with representatives of local after-school programs.

Noozhawk recently sat down with Mark Warkentin, former Olympian and head coach of the nonprofit Santa Barbara Swim Club.

Santa Barbara Swim Club

Question: Which ages/age groups usually participate at the Santa Barbara Swim Club?

Answer: Typically around 6 years old. Usually the kids have already been introduced to the water before joining our club. The next step is to learn how to swim well, which is also the next step in becoming Michael Phelps.

The Santa Barbara Swim Club is a nonprofit swim team that provides fitness and competitive opportunities for local families.
The Santa Barbara Swim Club is a nonprofit swim team that provides fitness and competitive opportunities for local families. (Santa Barbara Swim Club photo)

Some people look at swimming as nothing more than a skill to learn, so we’ll get a lot of locals who will come in and say, I want to make sure my kid learns how to swim before it’s too late, but we still have adults and high schoolers who come in later and want to learn. Swimming can be a lot like learning a new language; the older you get, the harder it is to pick up.

Q: Does the Swim Club participate in competitive swimming as well?

A: We have a lot of families who come to us and just want to add swimming to their child’s skill set at 8-9 years old, but then there are the ones who really enjoy the competitive side, want to go to swim meets and practice every day. Those are the ones who will usually stick it out through high school. We’ve actually had Olympians and kids go on to get full scholarships to various colleges as competitive athletes. We have some kids who are doing a lot of higher level stuff and are the fastest swimmers in town.

Q: When was the program/after-school activity first started?

A: The Santa Barbara Swim club started in 1964. We’ve been swimming and training at Los Baños del Mar pool at 401 Shoreline Drive for almost 25 years. We’ve had a few practices at some of the other locations, such as UC Santa Barbara, but our main location is Los Baños.

Q: What was the thought behind creating the program?

A: We are the only competitive swim club in town! Basically, the city could maybe handle more swim programs, but it worked out really well with ours. We are your first, last, best and only option.

Q: How many kids participate?

A: Usually during the school year we average at about 250 kids. Of those 250, some come every single day and their goal is to be great swimmers. Their goal is to make it to the Olympics and have that experience that Michael Phelps is having right now. Others are coming just one or two days a week, for a variety of reasons — physical fitness, cardiovascular health, and stuff like that.

Q: What are your goals for kids who participate?

A: We run the gamut. We provide and make ourselves available to whatever it is our participants want. If you don’t want to be on a schedule and have a more casual approach to swimming, we can do that. If you want to be the next Michael Phelps, we can help you achieve that, too.

One of the ways we coordinate this is by placing swimmers into groups, an then separating them into sub groups based on their goals. One particular subgroup is really getting after it — they attend swim meets regularly and are highly competitive. If you’re capable of being in that group and you want to make that commitment, go for it, we’ve got that option available for you. Then there are other groups, where there isn’t strong commitments and it feels more come and go at your own leisure.

Certain groups have expectations, but the athletes themselves gets to choose if they want to meet those expectations and be a part of that.

Q: Which sorts of activities can parents expect their children to participate in?

A: In addition to learning the fundamentals of swimming and honing their skills, we also do a few other activities outside of the pool.

There are various beach days and also a few team trips. I’ve got a team trip that I organize for some of the kids where we spend a few days canoeing down the Colorado River and camping on the riverbank. It’s fun because it’s a change of scenery from Santa Barbara and it tests their limits in a different way than swim practice — also, it's a great chance to get some outdoors experience.

With the high school kids, I really try to expand their horizons and go to all the various colleges in the area. I always have a swimming anchor, so we’ll watch a duel meet, for example between UCSB vs UCLA, and then go tour each of the college campuses. My goal is to get them interested in what could be.

Q: Is there a particular activity that most students enjoy more than another?

A: What we try to do with a lot of kids is let each group use swim fins for a few practices. The fins make everyone feel like a dolphin in the water. So it’s kind of cool; it’s not just straight-up swimming, there’s some underwater dolphin kicking, which really makes a kid feel fast. My own son really got into swimming when he got to use fins.

We also do some dry-land activities because our goal is make them better overall athletes. Some of that is in the water because that is the area that we mainly compete, but the better they are on land, the better it is for us as swim coaches.

We’ve also got a guy who runs a strength and conditioning program, which for the younger kids, is a little more play-orientated, but for the older kids, can be a bit more intense and exposes them to different exercises and movements than they are used to.

Q: How is your program unique from other after-school activities in the area?

A: If you look at a lot of sports, they are either dramatically individual — like golf, for example — or they are dramatically team-oriented, such as basketball, where they have no identity of themselves outside of their team. What swimming tries to do, and what I think makes us unique, is we try to combine components of team with real individual accomplishment. So everybody gets to play and you feel like you’re on a team, but nobody sits on the bench. Everybody gets to participate. I think that is one thing that swimming has and that a lot of other teams sports don’t. It blends the best of individual and a team together.

Q: Does the content change at all over the course of the school year?

A: No. This is something we pride ourselves on because a kid can show up on a Tuesday in late August, or two days before Christmas, or even during spring break, and they can always jump in. We are year-round so there is no season when they are not welcome. Come whenever you feel like it and we are here, and always ready to welcome new members.

Q: Does your program touch on any school subjects? If so, which?

A: We use math a lot. It’s a good subject for swimming because you have a goal time. So let’s say your best time for four laps of a 100-yard freestyle is a minute and four seconds. We will ask them how can you go 59 seconds? Are you going to make up those five seconds in the first lap? Probably not. So we use the component of goal setting and saying to the athlete, think about who you are, visualize yourself going five seconds faster and then put it to the test.

So we do a good amount of talking to the athletes about goal setting and then using math to set their goals. It’s an important part of the education process. Another essential piece of that is reading a clock so that we don’t have mad chaos in the water. So teaching kids a lot about math and time is a big component of our program.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to tell parents who might be interested in putting their child in the Santa Barbara Swim Club?

If you watched the Olympics, all of those swimmers who made the Olympics team started somewhere. I think that’s one of those misconceptions about when we watch someone do something on TV — we think they all started somewhere else, in some other universe on another planet. It’s kind of crazy that people don’t connect a person's achievements with something they could also achieve. But Santa Barbara Swim Club has had Olympians before, and they need to come from somewhere, so why not your child?

Click here for more information about the Santa Barbara Swim Club or to register your child, or email [email protected] for more information.

Picturesque Los Baños del Mar pool on Shoreline Drive in Santa Barbara.
Picturesque Los Baños del Mar pool on Shoreline Drive in Santa Barbara. (Santa Barbara Swim Club photo)

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