By Bryan Gatchell, Fort Polk Guardian staff writerFebruary 16, 2010
FORT POLK, La. -- During the summer, the South Fort 50-meter pool is a sunny place to cool off from the stifling heat. In October, a bubble structure covers the pool, converting it for the colder months into a natatorium.
Between the changing room and the bubble, swimmers suffer a cold blast of winter before passing through revolving doors into the chlorine-scented, humid warmth.
Every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 6:30 p.m., 15 kids, ages 5-13, brave the brief cold blast for swimming practice. Four coaches run the practice including Jennifer Rademacher and three assistants. The assistant coaches break the children into groups based on ability and run targeted practices to focus on what the young swimmers specifically need to work on. The advanced swimmers work on speed while the intermediate and beginner groups work on fundamentals. Swimmers perform freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly stroke.
The group competes as part of the Louisiana Swimming Association, which holds its next meeting Feb. 20 in Shreveport. At the meet, Fort Polk's youth swim team will compete based on age and stroke.
"It's a fun thing for a child to compete and it gives them motivation to swim faster," said Rademacher. "Since the meets are spread far apart, it's important that we keep these practices fun. It's not just generated solely around competitiveness."
The kids also play games, such as sharks and minnows, where one swimmer plays a shark and the rest play minnows. The minnows start at one side of the pond and the shark at the other. They cross the pool to the other side and whichever minnows the shark tags on the way becomes a shark in the next round until all the minnows have become sharks and a new round begins. The swimmers also practice other skills, such as treading water.
"Some of them can tread for over ten minutes," said Rademacher. "That's giving them comfort with the water, letting them know that relaxing and treading for a long time is a good life skill."
Knowing how to swim and tread water are valuable survival skills but can also contribute to general physical health.
"The child might not want to swim competitively, but just being on the team and swimming three times a week is really good for them," said Rademacher. "It's probably one of the best forms of exercise as far as building muscles and cardio."
Whether they are in it for the competition, physical fitness or fun, the children display dedication. Before practice had begun and the coaches had instructed them on what they were to do, the kids began swimming laps.
"They don't know what they're going to do today and they're swimming laps," said Rademacher. "That's how motivated they are."
One student in particular impresses Rademacher. Gabriel Smith, 7, has already shown great endurance, being able to put in a mile of swimming during an hour's practice, keeping up with the older kids and even competing against older swimmers as he did this past summer.
"I put him in the pool because his endurance level is insane," said Christine Smith, Gabriel's mother. "He started off in the 25-meter pool. Going across it once is a little intimidating when they are at that age. Megan Jackson (one of the assistant coaches) worked with him for a long time and now he can do all the strokes, swim for a solid hour and keep up with all the older kids."
"He impresses me to no end because a lot of grownups can't even fathom two laps in the 50-meter pool and he just goes," said Rademacher.
The swimming season is year-round. During the winter, when pool time is scarcer due to the limited number of indoor pools, the team only gets in three classes weekly. During the summer, when they have a pool to themselves, the team will hold practices five days a week.