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Phelps effect sends regular people to pools

ST. PETERSBURG

Every four years, Fred Lewis sees a bump in participation at the St. Petersburg Aquatics end-of-summer clinic.

"That is how you know it is an Olympic year," said Lewis, who has been the club team's coach for nearly two decades. "This year has been a little different."

Lewis calls it the Phelps effect.

Typically, the St. Petersburg Aquatics team has 40 to 50 swimmers who sign up for the clinic, which is designed to prepare young athletes for the year-round swim team.

This year, because of Michael Phelps' record eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics, participation has tripled.

"We have had a phenomenal turnout," Lewis said. "But we saw it coming."

Lewis knew that his team, which draws swimmers from all around Pinellas County, would be able to ride the Olympic wave. So he increased his marketing during the Games and prepped his coaches for a large turnout.

"The parents see swimming on TV and wonder if it could be a sport their kids might enjoy," he said. "I tell them that this is a great way to start. At the very least, they will be stronger and healthier for it."

USA Swimming, the national sanctioning body for the sport, predicts it will enjoy its largest single-year membership boost. In 2004, after Phelps' six-gold-medal performance at the Athens Games, membership grew 7 percent, the largest increase in more than 10 years. The organization predicts that this year's increase will far exceed that.

An informal survey of area swim team coaches indicates that participation may be up at least 20 percent.

"We typically have 150 swimmers on our team," said Lori Perrotti, office manager for the Clearwater Aquatic Team. "Just since the Olympics, we have had 35 kids come in and sign up. Everybody is talking about the Olympics."

Julia Lamb, who coaches the Tampa Bay Aquatics team at Hunter's Green Country Club in New Tampa, has also seen a spike in interest.

"I have probably picked up 12 new swimmers in recent weeks," said Lamb, who also coaches the Wharton High School swim team in Tampa.

"Usually, this is the time of year that we lose our summer swimmers because people go back to school."

Lamb said it typically takes about a month for a swimmer to decide whether the sport is for him.

"After they swim one big meet, they will know if they like it or not," she said. "At first, we spend a lot of time working on technique, and then the aerobic base. You don't become a great swimmer overnight."

Roy Wilshire, who coaches the Tampa Bay Aquatics program in Lakeland, said he has talked to numerous parents in the past month.

"They all mention Michael Phelps," he said. "That name seems to have really resonated, especially with the young boys."

Lewis, who runs one of the more highly regarded programs in the state, said he has noticed one difference between 2008 and previous Olympic years.

"About 25 to 30 percent of the kids who have signed up have a parent with them who wants to swim also," said Lewis, who has coached several Olympians, including three-time gold medalist Nicole Haislett Bacher. "It is not just kids that are getting into the sport. The parents drop them off, then go over to swim with the masters team. Participation has increased across the board."

Masters coach Patty Nardozzi credits the increase in older swimmers to Dara Torres, the 41-year-old triple silver medalist in Beijing, who coincidentally started her comeback in a meet at St. Petersburg's North Shore Pool in April 2007. The five-time Olympian set national masters records for 50 and 100 yards (21.91 and 48.34 seconds, respectively).

"She really showed that you can do it at any age," Nardozzi said of the former University of Florida All-American. "People look at her and say, 'Hey, maybe I can do that too.' ''

Nardozzi was happy when she had 200 swimmers on her team. Friday, she had 260.

"Swimming is something that you can do for your whole life," said Nardozzi, who coaches several world-class 80-year-olds. "And it doesn't matter if you are a novice or ex-Olympian. There is always room in the pool."

.Fast facts

Tampa Bay area swimming

If Michael Phelps and Dara Torres have gotten you interested in swimming, here are programs to check out. (Masters programs are for ages 18 and older only.)

St. Petersburg Aquatics: North Shore Pool, 901 N Shore Drive NE, St. Petersburg; stpetersburgaquatics.com

St. Pete Masters: North Shore Pool, St. Petersburg; stpetemasters.org

YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg: Programs and locations, stpeteymca.org.

Clearwater Aquatic Team: Doyle Center for Aquatics at the Long Center, 1501 N Belcher Road, Clearwater; teamunify.com

Tampa Bay Aquatics: Five locations in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Polk counties; tampabayaquatics.com

West Florida Lightning Aquatics and Masters: Southwest Recreation Complex, 13120 Vonn Road, Largo; (727) 686-6418

Tampa YMCAs: Programs and locations, tampaymca.info

Tampa Metro Masters: New Tampa Family YMCA, 16221 Compton Drive, Tampa; tbacswimming.com

Brandon Blue Wave Swim Team: Brandon Sports and Aquatic Center, 405 Beverly Blvd., Brandon; mybsac.org

Phelps effect sends regular people to pools 09/06/08 [Last modified: Saturday, September 6, 2008 10:36pm]
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