Every year about this time, Swim Columbus coach Chris Chain is a busy man, even though his swimmers are in the middle of a two-week break.
In addition to the long hours he devotes to coaching his group of about 40 young swimmers, Chain serves as a tireless promoter for the sport he has loved since childhood and the team he has coached for the past 10 years.
He’s distributing stacks of flyers promoting the club’s “Try-it free” sessions, which begin Monday afternoon, as well as visiting schools throughout the city and getting the word out in every way he can think of.
He is a one-man marketing team.
Meanwhile, in Starkville, Reg Shurden faces a different dilemma. As coach of the gymnastics program at the Academy of Competitive and Performing Arts (ACPA), he is almost inundated with gymnasts — a tumbling, jumping mass of 150 to 200 kids, some as young as 18 months old.
Every four years, Chain and Shurden get a little help in marketing their sport: The Summer Olympics.
While swimming and gymnastics attract little media exposure in non-Olympic years, the arrival of the Summer Games raises those sports’ profiles dramatically.
This year’s games have been particularly mesmerizing. Simone Biles, a virtual unknown before the Rio Games, won five medals, four of them golds (including individual all-around) in gymnastics. Swimming legends Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky cemented their icon status, and Simone Manuel became the first black female to win an individual gold medal in the sport, finishing with two golds and two silvers.
The Olympics, which end today, may be staged in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but their impact is felt in cities and towns across the nation, including Columbus and Starkville.
“We’ll definitely see interest spike,” said Shurden, who saw a jump in inquiries after the London Games of 2012. “It’s hard to put a number on, but it could be 10, 20 or 30 new kids.”
Chain also expects to see a bump from the games.
“Last time, we had probably a half-dozen kids who came in right after the Olympics who have stayed with us,” he said. “Of course, we won’t know until Monday when we start our open tryouts. But based on the last Olympics, it does create some interest. Kids see the Olympics on TV and they think, ‘Hey, this looks like fun.'”
Shurden, who has led teams at ACPA since 2011, said most of those kids participate in the recreational program, spending an hour a week in the gym.
But Shurden also coaches a competitive program. When the new competitive season begins in September, he expects to have six boys and 35 girls competing for his team, “Dawg House Gymnastics,” in meets around the state.
“For the kids who are competitive, it’s a real commitment,” Shurden said. “They’ll spend anywhere from six to 30 hours each week working on their skills.”
The emergence of black athletes in the sport – where Gabby Douglas and Biles have won back-to-back all-around Olympic gold medals – has already brought more African American children into the sport, he said.
“At our gym, it’s pretty much a 50/50 mix already,” Shurden said. “I think the sport appeals to (all) races, based on what I’m seeing in our program.”
The same cannot be said of swimming, at least not in Columbus, Chain said.
“We don’t have any black kids in our program, so maybe the success of Manuel will create some interest,” Chain said. “I know I swam against black swimmers when I was competing, and I do see some black swimmers now as we go to meets, but the numbers are pretty low.”
Monday’s “Try-it free” sessions are open to children ages 5 and up. The only requirement is that a child be able to swim a lap. The week-long tryouts are held after school at the Frank Phillips YMCA.
“We really encourage kids to come to the tryouts,” Chain said. “It’s free swimming for a week, so there’s no reason not to try.
“We have four great coaches to work with the kids, and no matter the skill level, they’ll be better swimmers by the end of the week, even if they don’t stay in the program after the tryouts are over,” he added.
Anyone interested in having a child participate can go to www.swimcolumbus.org for information on Swim Columbus or http://www.acpastarkville.com for the gymnastics program in Starkville.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.