Months of lack of income but still being committed to paying recurring maintenance, rental costs and salaries have left many club owners/coaches in the aquatic fraternity struggling to keep their heads above water.
When the restrictions announced in Mid-March due to Covid-19 effectively decimated the local, regional and international swimming calendar - the backbone of the local-age-group programme - aquatic affairs were tossed into more uncertainty.
Coaches’ salaries were slashed to varying degrees while programme planning remained in limbo because of the doubt surrounding future competition schedules.
Participation numbers took a blow, with some swimmers lost to other sports that had the capacity to restart earlier and parents prioritising limited resources after their livelihoods were affected by the pandemic.
Some clubs are currently assessing their business model after the Ministry of Health’s (MoH) latest guidelines announced by Prime minister Dr Keith Rowley last Saturday released the pressure valve just slightly. Pool operators and clubs are now allowed to engage their national team aspirants.
Youth Olympics gold medallist, 2010, and current head coach of the South-based Petrotrin Barracudas Swim Club, Christian Homer said: “We haven’t resumed yet and are just starting to put things in place to begin so I can’t really comment at this time, while Tidal Wave Aquatics (TWA) head coach and owner added:“We are still regrouping so too early to comment.”
But for the vast majority of the ten local clubs contacted - all members of the Amateur Swimming Association of Trinidad and Tobago (ASATT) - the return to the pool of that limited number of swimmers aspiring to qualify for the Carifta Aquatics Championships (still scheduled for the Easter period in 2021) and the Pan Am Juniors (set for July 2021) might not suffice to prevent them from going under in a sport whose future remains pegged to the overall national strategy for dealing with the pandemic.
“Right now we are uncertain as to what our membership looks like. Our athletes, especially our national athletes are very frustrated, “said Brian Wickham, head coach of the Sea Hawks Swim Club based at the Centre of Excellence in Macoya. “Even though recently we have gotten the go-ahead for national swimmers to resume training, it is certainly not enough to have them out to maintain decent membership and also to pay the bills that you face, especially the rental bills that you are facing, so it has been extremely frustrating not knowing when we can go back into full swing.”
The dwindling membership numbers is a major issue. And the required abandonment of the Learn to-Swim (LTS) programmes - the more lucrative part of their club programmes due to the health restrictions - has contributed to the shipwrecking of some clubs’ finances.
Clubs have tried to adapt to the new environment by engaging social media and using on-line resources like Google Meet and video conferencing platform Zoom to implement not only dry land sessions but swimming specific educational programmes, all in an attempt to justify club fee charges to their membership.
Pool facilities have also strictly adhered to the MoH protocols and even guidelines set out by the aquatics world governing body, FINA, to ensure the safety of their swimmers.
But even with those accommodations, this Covid-19 stretch has proved to be a troubling passage of water that has grounded at least one swimming programme.
Maurice Faria, head coach of the UWI Swim Team, said the university decided to drain its pool shortly after the advent of the pandemic to curtail maintenance costs at the St Augustine facility. Grateful the organisation paid coaches until April, six weeks after the shutdown began, Faria underlined the stress associated with losing income over a prolonged period. “I had to take a deep dive into my savings but all in all, you are glad to be alive,” he said, adding that UWI will be adopting a wait-and-see approach before they restart their swim programme.
Former ASATT PRO and current manager of the Centre of Excellence pool facility Jason Wickham said he went months without income-earning classes in aqua therapy and aqua aerobics because it just didn’t make financial sense. “Even with the competitive swimming coming on stream, it is still very difficult to even meet expenses with only competitive swimming,“ Wickham explained.
“Together with that, you really can’t make any adjustment in rates for competitive clubs as yet. It is a difficult time.”
Three swim clubs based at the Centre of Excellence - RWB Academy, Sea Hawks and TWA - are all opening to reduced numbers and lane assignments, while Wickham is attempting to accommodate Torpedoes Swim Club (TSC) whose La Joya Complex base is not yet ready to open its facility to that club.
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At the St James-based Blue Dolphin Swim Club, head coach Shawn Pouchet believes programmes will have to add value and make tough decisions to survive.
“Ultimately the already low participation in the sport at the competitive level will be further adversely affected...The aquatic fraternity needs to rebrand from an individual to collective body and position themselves to partner in mutually beneficial partnerships with other sports clubs and/or corporate entities,” he said. He added that his swimmers were more than elated to restart training.
TSC head coach /owner Ronald “Corkie” Corke - who has seen 32 of his original 45 age-group swimmers return and who has former top female swimmer Sharntelle Mc Lean as one of his assistant coaches - said he felt it for the coaches whose primary source of income is coaching.
“I don’t know how they are managing it. Coaching is a supplemental income for me and I have been able to work around my other finances. But it must be tough for them, especially going through this prolonged period.”
Corke added clubs needed to continue trying to manage as best they can by thinking outside of the box, understanding the limitations of the current environment and by understanding and motivating parents and athletes.
As a pool operator at the St Michael’s Swim Pool in San Fernando, ASATT vice-president Joseph Mc Leod said it was a “real strain” to maintain the 25 metre pool (chlorine, vacuuming etc.) without off-setting income.
As the head coach of both the South-based Atlantis Swim Club and Westmoorings-based Marlins Swim Club, Mc Leod echoed the strain felt by coaches.
“It was very hard from a coaches point of view,” Mc Leod lamented. “There is no revenue coming in of course, and you don’t have any swimmers to train which is the love for the sport too.”
He added the children were also discouraged because some of them - especially those in the last year of the age-group - would have gone the entire year without racing.
But the former ASATT president said he was pleasantly surprised with the swimmers’ positivity on their return.
“I have seen basically a 100 per cent attendance from Atlantis and Marlins ,” he said, adding his charges are focused on the possibility of Carifta and Pan AM Juniors in 2021. “They are very excited to come back out.”