UW Alliance starts free swimming lessons for women


The latest initiative by UW Alliance, a group of students and staff committed to bringing positive systematic changes against racism, is a free learn-to-swim program focused on access to minority groups in the community. One of the Alliance co-founders, UW swim team coach Jacky Beckford Henriques, runs the program. The program started this past May and currently has 48 participants. 

According to Henriques, the pilot program was supposed to start last year but was pushed back to this Spring due to COVID-19 and other organizational challenges. While organizing the program Henriques found that there was a real need for female-only swim programs, which is the current target group. Currently, the participants enroll through a partnership with Adventure for Change and range from seven to 41 years of age. 

“There’s very little offered in sport for women and girls in the community. So [initially] I said, we’ll have one class for each sex. And then they came to me and said, listen, we’ve got 48 women registered. So I thought, there’s obviously a demand there. Let’s go with that. But then because of cultural and religious reasons, I have to have a female-only staff. These are all things that came up. But we were all prepared to push to start it now, and that was really the key thing. So I consider that this is a pilot start,” Henriques said.

The program is currently run by students, some of whom come from the swim team and others who have been recruited through other means. In the fall, Henriques hopes to be able to get more of the swim team involved.  

“It’s such a rewarding experience coming in and being able to see the participants and see how much they’ve learned and are and are growing in just a short period of time. One of the first things that I was teaching some of the adults was how to learn how to float, and then just seeing the smile on their faces after they got the skill and they’re able to see the progress they made, that was just really rewarding to see,” said Megan Sherwin, 4th-year Rec and Sports Business and member of the swimming team. 

The students who are currently helping to run the program have found the experience to be rewarding, noting that it has added to how they see the world. 

“It’s given me such a different perspective on life because I feel like it’s such an amazing program… I think that it just made me a better instructor, and just being able to relate to different people from different walks of life. It’s just been really important, something that I’m taking away. You get to hear their stories. I think it’s just given me a different and more unique perspective and helped me recognize not only my own privilege but how privileged we are here in Canada,” said Leanne Schut, a second year psychology student and lifeguard. 

Naheed Bibi, Community Engagement Coordinator for Adventure for Change, the community partner with whom the swim worked to bring in participants, saw a real need for the initiative, especially for girls and women. 

According to Bibi, other activities like soccer or basketball are more easily accessible compared to swimming. Two of the biggest barriers to swimming are the cost of accessing a pool and the comfort levels of going to public swims, both of which the Alliance program seeks to address by being a free program that is currently only for girls and women.  

“For the teenager girls, before they were thinking that we cannot swim here. They say, ‘How will we swim?,’ ‘Where?,’ ‘We are not allowed in a public swim.’ Now they feel included. And that is the most important part for me is that those teenage girls when they go to high school, they can tell their friends and they can tell their fellow students, classmates that yes, we do swimming too. We learn swimming, we know swimming,” Bibi said.

Halfway through this pilot session of the program, Henriques believes it’s been a great success.

“I would say the success of the individuals in learning to swim has been actually better than I thought in terms of it’s only a once-a-week class. When women come in and they’re now able to swim 12 and a half yards, or even move 12 and a half yards in the water. To them, that’s such a tremendous success… And there’s also confidence for some of these women. Here you’re able to do something on your own and be successful at it. So for them, it’s a great confidence boost, I believe,” Henriques said.