Gators gone

Published 8:50 pm Saturday, August 6, 2011

Gators: Suffolk YMCA Gators team members relax between heats during the Western Tidewater Swim Association All-Star Meet on Saturday, July 23 at the Suffolk Family YMCA. This summer was the last season for the Gators. The YMCA swim team is merging into the Old Dominion Aquatic Club as a new pool opens in September at the YMCA Regional Day Camp and Family Center on Kenyon Road.

Suffolk YMCA sends swim team packing

The Gators swim team, which had competed at the Suffolk Family YMCA for more than a decade, swam its last heat recently.

Ironically, construction of a new pool in the city has left the team without a home.

The Suffolk YMCA Gators team held its final meet as Gators two weeks ago in the Western Tidewater Swim Association All-Star Meet local YMCA.

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With the construction of a new Olympic-size swimming pool in a state-of-the-art facility at the YMCA Regional Day Camp and Family Center on Kenyon Road, the Suffolk Family YMCA decided to merge its swimming program with that of the Old Dominion Aquatic Club.

Gators swimmers, ages 4-18, and their parents were told about the change during a meeting on May 31.

“Some of the kids found out about it that night. The meeting was the first chance to hear about it, so of course there were kids crying,” said Jennifer Gaines, who has two daughters on the Gators and was the team’s league representative in the WTSA. “It didn’t need to happen like that.”

For some of the Gators, the news had an especially painful finality. The merged club will have higher fees, stricter participation guidelines for both swimmers and their parents and will require longer travel times. And a higher level of competitiveness is likely to cut out some of those Gators who swam on the team for more recreational reasons, some parents said.

ODAC’s annual registration fee is $100 per family and monthly fees range from $50 to $133 per swimmer. There are three practices per week for the 8-and-under group up to 10 a week for the Senior Select group. A parent with a swimmer 9 years old or older must work a bingo fundraiser in Virginia Beach once every three weeks.

Gator registration costs just $40 a month during a season, plus a YMCA membership. Some kids swam just one season a year. Some were Gators year-around.

“(ODAC) is great for kids who want to move on and want to advance, but for kids who just want to swim and enjoy it, it’s going to be hard,” parent Melissa Eubanks said.

“We were told our kids can go to the Portsmouth YMCA, the next closest YMCA, or to the new pool and join ODAC,” said parent Melissa Eubanks.

But YMCA officials defended the change and the way it was announced.

“We talked with the Board and with parents for more than a year about this,” said Rick Matthews, district vice president with the YMCA of South Hampton Roads.

“All of the parents are my friends. One of the parents who was the most upset was our Volunteer of the Year last year, so I feel sad about it. At the same time, we gave them a good choice. We’ve given them a good option.”

Even the parents who are upset with the YMCA’s decision speak well of ODAC.

“I have nothing against ODAC. It’s a great opportunity for some kids and it’s a fine organization, but this was an insult to us,” Gaines said.

Two ODAC swimmers have qualified for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials. Founded in 1978, it’s the only Level 4 Club in Virginia in USA Swimming’s Club Recognition Program, recognizing financially sound and athletically productive teams.

Along with producing national-level swimmers, Williams said ODAC teaches swimmers of all ability levels.

ODAC runs a Pre-Competitive Swim Team for kids ages 7-13 who want to improve their skills, develop self-confidence and make friends.

ODAC started tryouts at the Suffolk Family YMCA in late July and has 20-30 kids coming out so far, Williams said.

“ODAC’s mission statement is hand in hand with the core values of the YMCA,” ODAC President Rosemary Williams said. “We’re really excited with our partnership with the YMCA. We’re looking forward to the opportunity to being a vital part of the community.”

The change also will mean a difference to Suffolk Family YMCA members who have nothing to do with a swim team, officials said.

Along with the Gators, local high school squads have practiced there, and Nansemond-Suffolk Academy holds its home meets there.

“For nine months of the year, from 2:30 to 7:30 just about every weekday, our members can’t use a pool,” Matthews said. “We have 100-150 members cancel a year because of the pool schedule at the Suffolk YMCA, because they say they can’t use them enough.”

Starting this fall, the high schools will be practicing in the Day Camp’s new pool, clearing the older pool for use by the YMCA’s broader membership.

“We’ll never have to turn anyone away again,” Matthews said.

Eubanks, however, said she is done as YMCA member, and she’s not alone in leaving.

“A lot of parents said they won’t be members. I won’t be a member after the summer. I told them that and it didn’t seem to bother them,” Gaines said.

“There are parents who are upset and I understand, and I wish that wasn’t so, but this lets me serve the most people at the highest level,” Matthews said.

But the hard feelings linger.

“If they had just told us, ‘This is a way for us to help a lot more people, and we’re sorry, but this is just what we have to do,’ it would’ve been a lot better,” Gaines said. “The hardest part is, even if everyone finds another team they become happy with, this is breaking up friendships and stopping a really good, positive thing with people who are active in the community.”