World-class coach gets into the swim at the Kroc

For local swim coach legend Jim Ellis, summer is the perfect time to mold young swimmers into disciplined competitors.

“There’s nothing else to do. There’s no school in the way so they can just concentrate on swimming,” said Ellis, founder of the first all-black swim team in the early ’70s and inspiration for the movie Pride.

To that end, the world-class coach and his team of instructors are running seven, week-long competitive swim camp sessions at The Salvation Army Kroc Center of Philadelphia. There, swimmers from the tri-state area will learn the ins and outs of the sport.

“Competitive swimming 101,” said Ellis of the camp that kicked off this week.

Campers – who must all have some experience with the world of competitive swimming – start each day at 7:30 a.m. with an hour-long calisthenics routine. Then they hit the water for the first of two swim sessions inside the Jimmy Moran Competition Pool. The camp finishes up between 3 or 4 p.m.

Sandwiched in between those water workouts are classroom activities that teach campers the skills Ellis and his crew know are necessary for race-day success. They’re also skills, such as time management and eating right, that they believe are helpful out of the pool.

“[Swimming] really builds character, discipline and hard work,” said Tracy Freeland, one of the camp’s swim instructors and a former competitor on Ellis’ first swim squad.

Ellis’ swimmers, who range from 6 to 15 years old, agree.

“[Ellis’] ideas of swimming help us to keep our lives balanced and it just helps us in life in general so that later on in life we’ll still be able to swim, but keep our grades up at school and be able to do things outside of the pool as well,” said Deja Lewis Nwalipenja, 13, who’s been swimming with Ellis for four years.

Badia Weeks and Madison Freeland, Tracy’s daughter, have both been swimming at the Kroc Center since November. They said swimming has taught them the value of hard work.

“You can’t just go, ‘Well, I want to do this and not have to work to get anything for it.’ said Weeks, who along with Freeland, aspires to compete in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “You always have to try your best.”

Ellis, who has earned most of his acclaim for his work with male swimmers, hopes the camp will help foster a crop of competitive female swimmers for the club’s winter season. He said most of the campers, about 80 percent, will stick around throughout the seven weeks.

“We’re trying to empower females now with our program,” said Ellis, who added that male swimmers are also welcome. About 90 percent of the swimmers that tried out for the camp were female, he said. 

Each week of the camp costs $100 per person. That’s in addition to what each swimmer’s family pays for a Kroc Center membership.

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