PATERSON, NJ - The swimming team at the Boys and Girls Club of Paterson and Passaic is only three years old, but it is already making waves. In February, at the Black Heritage National Swim Meet in Washington DC, the Dolphins placed 5th out of 30 teams, and received a number of individual accolades.
Led by passionate Coach and Aquatics Director, D’nard Robinson, the team beat out a number of privately owned clubs, and saw a number of its swimmers earn individual accolades. Eight year-old Emily Zapata broke records in both the 200 and 500 Meter Freestyle events on her way to a High Point Trophy Award, which is awarded to the most outstanding swimmer in an age group.
Other standouts include ten year-old Francesca Cordero, who also emerged ranked 1st in her age group earning herself a High Point Trophy in the Girl’s 9-10 Division, Luca Diez, who ranked 2nd overall in Men’s 8 & under, and Daljin Castro, who came in 3rd overall in Men’s 15 & Over (every swimmer after age 15 counts as an adult). Overall, ten swimmers this year qualified for the Junior Olympics.
The team continued its success earlier this month as 28 swimmers from the Dolphins headed to St. Petersberg, Fl, to compete in the Boys and Girls Club National Championships.
For a young team these early returns are impressive to say the least. Robinson has built a powerhouse from the ground up. Since its inception, the team has grown from 24 kids to 102, thanks to the hard work and dedication of the Boys and Girls Club staff.
“We are blessed to have D’nard on this team,” says club CEO Wendy McGuire, who added that he has “fundamentally changed the aquatics team.”
Robinson moved from Jamaica to Paterson when he was 15. Without a network in Paterson, he sought out the Boys and Girls club as a place to swim. “They had a very good coach that really helped create a sense of family,” says Robinson. He joined the then unofficial team run by that former coach, falling in love with the program.
Still, even then he wanted more from the team. “What’s the point of having an unofficial program?” laughs Robinson, comparing it to “studying for a test that you never take.”
A few years later, when he began working at the Boys and Girls Club as a lifeguard and instructor, he discovered that the old team had been dissolved. As he worked towards both a Bachelor’s and Master’s from Rutgers, he prepared to build and expand the swim program.
When he transitioned into his role on the swim team full-time, he put his plan aggressively into action. “I go around to families and get them to sign up for swim lessons by educating them on the benefits,” he explained of his recruiting tactics.
He relies heavily on this method because the team draws its swimmers from classes at the Boys and Girls Club, relying on homegrown talent in a sport often dominated by private clubs that draw from large pools of successful swimmers. “Very few successful swimmers will transfer to Paterson, so the talent that you create is going to be in-house,” says Robinson.
One way he mitigates this is by creating a culture that helps build and retain the talent it has. Kids stay in the swim program for years, eventually growing old enough to train the next generation of swimmers in a self-sustaining cycle.
Team member ages range between five and twenty years-old, and Robinson tries to sign them young and keep them as long as he can, saying “my goal is that once we get them in the club, they should stay here.”
Part of what Robinson’s philosophy of coaching centers on his belief that the actual act of swimming is only a fraction of the formula for success. “Its 80% mental discipline and 20% swimming,” he says.
With that in mind, he has worked to create a program that far exceeds the confines of the pool. Team members are expected to participate in what often amounts to upwards four hours of daily activity at the Boys and Girls Club that includes pool time, instruction, and academic work.
To remain on the team, members must maintain at least a C plus average in school. If a swimmer is in danger of falling below a B, the Boys and Girls Club provides educational programming and tutoring to ensure they are helped.
All in all, Robinson estimates that the swim team stays from about 5:30-9:30 pm every day, though it can often go much later. He says he uses these long blocks to “mentally train them for the bigger picture.”
In this way, the coach has designed his program to focus on all areas of his swimmers’ lives, with an eye towards the future. He sees swimming as a “sport that will give you a career,” in terms of its effect on both mental discipline and in literal jobs such as lifeguards and water safety instructors; skills that every member of the swim team is trained for when they turn fifteen.
A major barrier to entry is swimming’s reputation in Paterson. “It’s not the most popular sport,” says Robinson. He believes there’s a stigma against swimming, and that parents often focus in on sports like football, basketball, and baseball. “They’re not the only ways that your child can go off to school on a scholarship,” he says.
Last year, all eight seniors on the team went to college on full swimming scholarships to prestigious institutions including Howard University, University of Richmond, and Montclair University. Of the four seniors on the team this year, Robinson is hoping to get at least three—if not all four—into Ivy League schools on scholarships.
Whether the goal is college or the Olympics, Robinson has the same plan. “Whatever reason we can find to get you in the pool, I guarantee we’ll get you in,” he laughs, though his seriousness shines through. Robinson believes in his swimmers and in their ability to succeed in and out of the pool.
Back in Jamaica, Robinson says he was raised a whole community. “I never grew up in a household where my parents had to work several jobs,” he says. When they weren’t able to be present, he says his relatives and friends and neighbors picked up the slack.
It is this community he hopes to provide at the Boys and Girls Club. Coaches care for swimmers, teammates help each other, and “our parents always look out for one another,” says D’nard. In cultivating this, he hopes to counteract negative environmental factors so that kids aren’t “walking through the doors with a heavy heart.”
His original plan for a swim team was just that; a swim team. It wasn’t until he saw the stressors his kids were facing and the work they were putting in to not “become a product of their environment” that he created the all-encompassing system they use now. Ultimately, he believes that his job is merely to build confidence and show his swimmers that they “had the skills the whole time.”
The day-to-day can be hectic. During an hour-long interview with TAPinto Paterson in the packed chlorine-smelling office next to the pool, Robinson had to stop multiple times to speak to kids and oversee instructors. The Boys and Girls Club instructs an average of 110 kids a day in swimming.
Jasmie Lugo, already a three-year Dolphin veteran at 8 years-old, says that she’s stuck with the team because she likes the people on the team and because D’nard is “nice and sometimes gives us free time.” She competed at the Black Heritage Meet in DC and traveled to Florida.
Fourteen year-old Ivan Pelcastre only joined the team last year, but is already committed to the Dolphins. He credits his positive feelings to the “great coaches and good exercise,” and the fact that he enjoys “the people I swim with.” He says that D’nard “taught me everything I know.”
The team’s upward trend looks to continue thanks to both individual achievement and strong overall performance. Team standouts like Francesca Cordero and fifteen year-old Charlie James qualified for this year’s Eastern Zone Sectionals—an exclusive meet reserved for the top two swimmers in the state in each age group—but with over 100 swimmers, contributions are coming from every skill level and age group.
But competitive success is only a piece of the puzzle, and the Boys and Girls Club is more focused on the results that aren’t as quantifiable; impacts on mental discipline and long-term prospects that can’t be measured in lap time. As Wendy McGuire puts it, “it’s not just about moving through water, it’s about moving through life.”
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