Santa Fe’s public pools face traffic jam

February 18, 2019

High school kids swimming backstroke and butterfly, most trying to avoid kicking one other.

A competitive triathlete splitting a lane with an injured skier who’s attempting physical therapy.

An elderly couple sitting in the bleachers, patiently waiting for an opening.

And a mother trying to ignore the chaos, helping her small child learn to doggie paddle.

The traffic jam at the city’s pools this winter is a revolving snapshot of frustration: In a city where only two public pools are operational, patrons and staff say there simply is not enough space to accommodate Santa Fe’s swimmers, especially the younger ones.

Poolgoers say the absence of kids’ swim programs has been of concern for many years, and coupled with recently shortened hours and closures, opportunities for beginners have been especially sparse this winter. The problem, while temporary, also has brought to the fore long-term concerns about access to the sport.

“It’s definitely frustrating,” said Page Meneely,who has tried finding swim classes for her 3½-year-old daughter “all winter.”

In mid-December, the city of Santa Fe announced Fort Marcy’s pool would be closed for at least 72 days for renovations to the women’s locker room. Just a few weeks later, the Salvador Perez Recreation Complex was closed indefinitely for a major overhaul due to unexpected safety issues, including the presence of mold.

For the time being, the Genoveva Chavez Community Center and the Santa Fe Community College are the only public pool options in town.

For many, that’s frustrating — because both operational pools are either a long commute or don’t offer the kinds of programs they desire.

Lee Taylor, coach of the Santa Fe Aquatic Club and a private swim instructor, said that given students’ narrow after-school schedules and the inconvenience that comes from only one spacious location, the limitations are “negatively impacting the kids in this community.”

Because nearly every high school swim team in town has used the Chavez Center for practice between 4 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on weekdays since November, there’s been very little room for other poolgoers to swim there during what he called an ideal time frame, Taylor said.

The logjam also has increased pressure in the mornings on the center’s 50-meter pool.

Georgina Gibson — board president of the aquatic club, a Masters team swimmer, and a long-distance triathlete — noted lanes are “capped out” for younger swimmers.

Because she feels that putting too many kids in one lane “really degrades the coaching we can give them,” Gibson said there are 10 young swimmers on a waiting list who will join the Aquatic Club in March.

But relief is on the way: Fort Marcy is set to open in a couple of weeks, and John Muñoz, the city park’s director, has said the city plans to offer long-awaited public swim lessons for beginners at Salvador Perez when it reopens.

Muñoz said he also is looking to kick-start monthly classes at Fort Marcy, which would begin next month, as well as temporarily extend hours at the Chavez Center and implement elementary-age swim meets for the public.

He said there’s no reason the city shouldn’t be able to increase services, adding getting folks into the water is “definitely a priority.”

Yet, even once the pools reopen and the city increases its efforts, coaches and families say the issue of children’s access to the sport will continue.

At the Pojoaque Wellness Center, about 20 miles from Santa Fe, Abraham Kosgei, the facility’s director, said implementing kids’ swim classes at the fitness center is an equity issue.

“We believe everybody has the right to learn how to swim,” he said, adding that in pueblo communities, there are very few, if any, opportunities to participate.

Gibson agreed. She said access is a key issue for low-income families and Latinos nationally, citing statistics from the USA Swimming Foundation. The city, she said, needs to increase its efforts to offer affordable, accessible classes to benefit those groups.

Taylor said the city would be well-served to build another spacious, high-quality pool, but realizes that would be “a huge undertaking.”

Muñoz said he would weigh all options on how to move forward.

For some, the top concern is boosting toddler-age lessons, which decreases chances of drowning.

Vivian Gundzik, head coach for the Santa Fe Seals, said she doesn’t understand why the Chavez Center doesn’t “at least” utilize its leisure pool for toddler swim classes.

“To me, it seems like a waste of space,” she said.

Meneely said she was “shocked” to discover how few offerings there are for group classes, which she said “can help a child become more motivated because they see other kids doing the same thing.”

While there are more group sessions during the summer months, she said pools are so popular then that “you have a hard time just getting in, let alone getting a lesson.”

Meneely said she just wants her daughter to have the same experience she had growing up.

“I think it’s just crucial that that children know how to respect [water] … and how to be safe,” she said.