SPLASH Magazine, May 2004
Considering SwimAtlanta (SWAT) boasts more than 1,400 members swimming in five different locations throughout the city and is the largest and one of the most successful swim clubs in the United States, it’s easy to overlook its humble – and often cold – beginnings.
When Chris Davis and Jim Fraser started the fledgling program in 1977, they put everything they had into making it work. Rising each morning at 3:45, they transported their swimmers to practice, then worked full-time jobs (Chris in real estate management, Jim at a County Seat warehouse), and ended the day with afternoon and evening practices before heading home and into bed by 11 to get ready to start the whole process over again.
“Chris and I roomed together that first year, and every night at about 10, as we were driving home from practice, we would stop at Dunkin' Donuts for their $1.99 special of soup, donut and drink. It was about all we could afford at the time,” Fraser said. “We would always have them microwave the donut to heat it up, and by the time we left there, we were starting to feel our toes again. Four o'clock the next morning we would get up and do it again.”
Davis admits that while certain times were tough – so tough that at one point both he and Fraser sold most of their possessions, including their homes, in order to raise enough money to open a second location – neither ever doubted the ultimate success of the club.
“Everywhere we went, people told us we were going to fail, but it never dawned on us that we couldn’t make it work,” said Davis, who was in the same kindergarten class as Fraser in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. However, the two didn’t meet until their sophomore year in high school, when both families moved to Atlanta.
“We had a really difficult time getting funding, and we operated on less than four hours of sleep most days, but we always believed in what we were trying to accomplish,” Davis said. “But it certainly wasn’t easy.”
Cold Air, Warm Water
During that first year, SwimAtlanta athletes were subjected to some adverse conditions and trying circumstances – starting with having to train outdoors even in the winter, when they couldn’t secure time at any of the city’s indoor pools.
“That was the coldest winter in Atlanta’s history, and here were our swimmers having to train in it,” Davis said. “The water was actually a warm 82 degrees, but getting in and out of the water was the challenging part – not to mention how cold Jim and I were coaching outside. It was absolutely miserable, but I think it prepared us physically and mentally for our meets.”
Stu Wilson, an assistant coach with SwimAtlanta from 1990-2002, and one of Davis and Fraser’s original swimmers, remembers that first year with a shiver and a smile.
“We trained outdoors with no bubble to protect us from the cold, and a small building was used for bathrooms. On top of that, the pool was only six lanes and shallow,” said Wilson, now an assistant with Georgia Tech’s swimming program. “The team dwindled down to 30 swimmers, and I was one of the original 30 who made it through the winter.
“There were several scenes that I will always remember, like grabbing my kickboard for a kicking set, and the board would be caked with ice. The steam coming from the pool was so thick that you couldn't see anybody in front of you, and then there was the mad dash to the building after practice to get warm. It was always an adventure getting in and out without catching pneumonia.
When Davis and Fraser’s kids did gain access to indoor training, the surroundings and facilities didn’t exactly evoke a feeling of pride or reassurance that the club was growing strong roots for the future.
That reassurance came from the little things the two owners did to acknowledge the effort and loyalty of their athletes.
“Chris’ first indoor pool was a cinderblock cave with plastic tarps, spray-on ceiling insulation that would plop into your lane (we called it ‘pool cheese’), and a weight room that used steel (barbells) that Chris got a hold of somewhere,” said Hans Dersch, who started swimming with SwimAtlanta at the late age of 15 and went on to win a relay gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
“At the same time, when we took our annual trip to the Mecklenburg, Tenn., meet, we would arrive in luxurious European tour buses decked out with TVs, great sound systems, posh interiors and wet bar (off limits, off course), and would just watch the reaction from the other teams. It was Chris’ way of rewarding us for the hard work and letting us know we were important.”
SwimAtlanta steadily grew from its original 30 members to 60 by the end of the first year, and positive things appeared to be happening for the new club on the block.
Davis and Fraser realized that in order to grow and improve, the club needed to stretch its muscles throughout the city – first into Roswell and then into more of the growing, thriving, family-friendly suburbs.
“We knew that by starting with the local kids, which numbered in the 100s in neighborhood teams, we could branch out,” Davis said. “We put all of ourselves, our money and our families’ times into building the club.
“I remember receiving notice from our kids’ school that they qualified for school lunches because we weren’t making much money, and we’d both quit our full-time jobs to run the two locations. We just hoped that if we could get the membership up to around 160, we might earn $20,000 a year and keep our heads above water and prosper.”
After opening a third spot in Decatur in 1982, Fraser decided he was burned out on coaching and left the club as a coach. In the meantime, he and Davis started a side business, SwimAtlanta Pool Management, which provides pool management services and lifeguard staffing to community pools, and Fraser moved over to run the company on a full-time basis. Today, he is president of The Pool Management Group, which owns SwimAtlanta Pool Management, and the company manages between 500 and 600 pools in 20 states.
It was Davis’ dream and push, however, that strategically placed SwimAtlanta among the top clubs in the country. And that attitude – to strive to be the very best – rubs off on the other coaches and athletes.
SWAT For Life
“When I walk into the pool every day, I just want to swim fast,” said Amanda Weir, a freestyle hopeful for this year’s Olympic Games. “Chris, the other coaches and my parents have helped me realize my potential and work hard to build upon it.
“One of the main reasons I chose to go to Georgia next year is to stay close to the people who have helped me get this far – my family, friends and coach. SwimAtlanta will always be a part of me because it has shaped who I am today.”
Dersch, who has run swim camps, is a volunteer coach in Texas and runs the business side of his wife’s medical practice, believes the club reflects the personality of its founder.
While the atmosphere at SwimAtlanta is one geared toward success, the club and its coaches are all about self-accomplishment and ultimately, having fun.
“The real strength of Chris is that he provides an environment where the athletes push themselves,” Dersch adds. “You aren’t bullied or cajoled into performing. SwimAtlanta is a place where athletes are given the tools they need to reach their full potential and have incredible fun doing it.”
Weir agrees, and adds that without the coaches’ humor, all the work the swimmers put in wouldn’t have as much meaning or significance. She describes Davis as “wonderfully goofy.”
“The coaches of SwimAtlanta are all so funny,” Weir said. “They are constantly telling jokes and more often than not, making fun of us. Oftentimes, at big meets like Nationals, right before a race, Chris and I will joke around like usual, and other coaches look at us like we’re crazy for laughing so much before a race. However, SwimAtlanta is very laid back, and we do have a lot of fun, but when it comes down to it, we work very hard and are very successful as a team.”
Swimmers Come First
Another reason SwimAtlanta has been so successful for so long is the manner in which it is run and owned.
“Chris lets his coaches coach as they see fit, and I think it’s one of the biggest reasons why SwimAtlanta has produced so many great swimmers,” Wilson said. “There are probably five different styles, and yet Chris supports each and every one of them.”
Fraser believes the fact that the club is coach-owned and managed, and not run by a parental board, also contributes to its success.
“I think the unique aspect of SwimAtlanta has always been that it is a team run by coaches for swimmers,” Fraser said. “That was our philosophy from day one, and it still is 25 years later.
“In about our fourth year of operation, a couple of parents suggested setting up a parent advisory board, and we were open to the idea and called an open meeting for discussion. We had a big crowd show up, and we thought there was a lot of support, but when we started the meeting, Gil Gjertsen stood up and said ‘the reason we came to this club is because it is run by coaches – not parents.’ All the other parents agreed, and we ended the meeting then and have never had an advisory board since.”
However the club is run, Weir says it’s the relationships between the coaches and swimmers – Davis, in particular – that have made her time with SWAT memorable and special.
“Chris has such an amazing ability to motivate, that his very presence behind your lane in practice makes you want to try 10 times harder,” Weir said. “I wouldn’t be the swimmer I am today if it weren’t for Chris. He is the first person I want to see every day when I walk into the pool, and the last I want to talk to before heading home.
“He has instilled in me a competitive drive and an immense love for the sport, all while keeping my eyes toward the goals that we have created together. His positive attitude and ability to make every swimmer feel special are impossible to duplicate.”
Doug Gjertsen, who now coaches SwimAtlanta’s Georgia Tech West Pool location, swam for the club and was a member of the 1988 (two gold) and 1992 (bronze) U.S. Olympic Teams.