Would-be Gary swimmers left with no access to pools, teams or curriculum
By Mike Hutton 648-3139 or firstname.lastname@example.org February 9, 2013 11:34PM
The pool is drained, empty and locked at Theodore Roosevelt College & Career Academy in Gary, Ind. Wednesday February 6, 2013. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 10, 2013 12:15AM
Jaelan Collins hasn’t felt the cool rush of chlorine running into his nose after diving into a swimming pool in the Gary Community School Corp. in nearly two years.
He hasn’t swum competitively for a year.
He misses it — all of it. The icy cold water, the 5 a.m. workouts and the close bond he had developed with his teammates.
Collins started swimming his freshman year because it was something different from basketball and football, and it was a realistic option for him, like it was for dozens of other kids in Gary.
Collins comes home after school now from Wirt/Emerson Visual Performing High Ability Academy and wonders what his final year of swimming would’ve been like.
He’ll never know. He is a senior.
The four pools in the Gary high schools are empty, lifeless, concrete holes, closed off from public view. Swimming as a high school sport died in Gary this year, though it had been terminally ill for some time. The official cause was administrative neglect.
“They don’t even let us go to that side of the building anymore,” Collins said of the pool at Wirt.
Swimming doesn’t have the universal appeal of basketball for kids — what other sport in the city does? — but it had its own dedicated niche of athletes and coaches and it served a higher purpose: It was part of the curriculum for the students. Every kid who went through the Gary school system was required to take at least nine weeks of swimming for physical education class.
Former West Side swim coach Alex Pratt, now a teacher and coach at Homewood-Flossmoor in Illinois, was devastated by the news that swimming disappeared this fall.
Pratt was a home-grown coach — born and raised in Gary, graduating from West Side.
Pratt had built the Cougars’ girls program into a formidable operation, getting 35 girls out in 2007 — his last full year as coach. Among the notable West Side alumni were Katie Washington, the first black valedictorian at Notre Dame, and Ashley Farr, who went onto swim at North Carolina A&T. It was easy to recruit the kids — the ones who didn’t fit into the basketball and track mold were starved for another sports outlet. He’d pluck them out of class or find them walking in the hallways. Pratt didn’t care that sometimes more than half his team was new to the sport. He taught them, and some turned into college swimmers, others lifeguards. The ones who stuck around grew to love the sport.
“I learned how to swim in P.E. class,” Pratt said. “A lot of kids in Gary learned how to swim in P.E. class. We sent kids to college and made them into lifeguards. Think about the visual impact of a Gary kid coming back to coach kids in swimming. Now that’s gone — for a school corporation that is a travesty.”
Anton Strange was the best male high school swimmer in the city last year. His former age-group swimming coach, Howard Anderson Jr., said Strange was on track to earn a swimming-related scholarship after swimming competitive times in the fly and 100 free last year.
Strange, a senior at West Side, won’t be swimming in college. He won’t be going to college. He joined the Navy when the swimming program was shuttered this year. He comes home after school now and studies. There is no pool open where he could practice, aside from the one at the YWCA of Northwest Indiana.
Strange’s mother, Kimberly Parker, said Strange gravitated to swimming naturally when she took him to the Wirt pool as a young boy. Anderson, who coached the Gary Hammerheads — the age-group club swim team in Gary — through last season, mentored Strange.
“They cut off funding for swimming,” Strange says. “They stopped caring for it. Swimming isn’t a big sport. They just stopped caring for the pool.”
The decline of the conditions of the pools at West Side, Lew Wallace and Roosevelt, a school that isn’t run by the Gary school system as of this school year, has coincided with the school district’s financial free fall. Last month, the board announced contracts for 13 administrators — including city athletic director Earl Smith — won’t be renewed next year.
First-year superintendent Cheryl Pruitt inherited a $23 million shortfall, forcing her to lay off 184 teachers and 22 administrators. Pruitt, in response to emailed questions from the Post-Tribune, said the school system plans to fix the pools after the maintenance department assesses repairs throughout all the buildings.
“We are hopeful that swimming will be offered next year the pools repaired,” she wrote. “We are looking forward to having all the pools repaired so that students may participate in swimming in as part of the curriculum and swim teams.”
Collins’ roadmap to a working pool was always a circuitous, precarious journey. He started swimming at the Roosevelt pool as freshman, but was moved to the Lew Wallace pool in the middle of the year after the pool broke down. He swam at the West Side pool as a sophomore, though that was closed for much of the year because of mechanical issues. Last year, West Side, the only school left with a swim team in the city, swam all its meets at the Gary chapter of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Northwest Indiana, where Parker said the conditions were not ideal, because the heater was broken.
“The water was freezing cold,” she said. “It was literally like swimming in ice cold water.”
Parker called it “pitiful that we pay all these taxes and we don’t have a swimming team.” She points out her son was on track to earn a scholarship and that opportunity was yanked away.
“I’m very disappointed and sad,” she said. “There are no working pools, no teams — nothing.”
Howard Anderson Sr., the West Side coach last year and the dean of swimming coaches in Gary (he worked as the Wirt coach for 19 seasons before the school was closed.), said the sport in Gary suffered its last fatal blow when former West Side principal Judy Dunlap was transferred.
Anderson and Dunlap had kept the program alive despite a lack of support from the central office. They found a way to keep it going quietly, knowing the support from the top wasn’t there. Anderson paid for letters and trophies from his own pocket last year.
“We basically worked around the system,” Anderson said. “There were rumors and threats of it being canceled the last couple of years.”
This year, Dunlap left and Anderson found out in September, when the annual coaches meeting was held, that the school district was killing swimming completely even though he offered his services for free. He had planned on taking the kids to swim at the Boys & Girls Clubs again.
Anderson said the will to continue, starting with Smith, wasn’t there.
“I don’t know what power Earl Smith had, but he did not fight for the program,” Anderson said. “I even asked for a letter saying the season was over. He would not even give me that.”
Smith said the school system didn’t have the money to fix the pool and the transportation budget was cut, making it difficult to justify busing kids to the Boys & Girls Clubs. The numbers weren’t there, either.
“As far as I was concerned, we weren’t able to field a complete team,” Smith said. “We had problems getting the kids there.”
Anderson isn’t sure what the problem with the West Side pool is now, but past issues, like a broken water pump and some leaks in the liner, were never hard to fix. No one contacted by the Post-Tribune could detail the issues with the pools or any estimates they might have to repair them.
“They’re probably not that expensive to fix,” he said, “but when the funds are depleted and swimming, in their mind isn’t quote-unquote a revenue sport, they’re not going to fix it.”
Smith disputed that it wasn’t that “expensive to fix” though he admitted he didn’t know the nature of the problem with the pool at West Side.
Michael Washington, who works in finance for the school system, said he had no information on the pools.
“This is the first I’ve heard about it,” he said.
Rose Joiner, the club director at the Boys & Girls Clubs, was happy to have the high school swimmers back again — if the school system wanted it.
“If they shut them down, there is nothing we can do about it,” she said.
Anderson Jr., who worked as an assistant for his father at West Side one year and ran the Gary Hammerheads until he left the area last year, said there is no clear reason why the program shut down.
“It was never a situation where they said, we can’t afford this or we can’t afford that,” Anderson said. “It was just people not telling the truth. If this was a situation where they couldn’t afford the stuff then why wasn’t it presented to us?”
Anderson Sr. said he kept moving forward, despite the obstacles, because of Strange and JaQuae Ellison, another talented swimmer from Gary who left for Texas this year. Anderson couldn’t let go of it until he had exhausted every possibility to keep the program alive.
“I always told God, ‘If you give me one, I’ll be there,’ ” he said. “They absolved me of my emotional responsibility. That’s what happened. They decided to let it go. Anton and JaQuae made me proud. I was going to fight for them until I couldn’t fight anymore. I didn’t have a problem going into my pocket and giving them my time.”
Smith admitted it was disappointing students can’t swim in physical education classes.
The physical education teachers use a video and they teach dry land swimming — no water involved.
Smith said the schools could look into sharing a pool with another school outside the district or letting their students swim for a different school. He won’t be here to try usher that through. He is gone after this year.
He maintains, though, that when Pratt left, it really hurt the program.
“He had really built it up,” Smith said.
For Collins, there is no future. Collins, the team captain last year, can’t shake the nagging feeling he’s partially responsible for the lost season for his teammates.
“I feel like I let them down,” he said.