Daniel Rubin: Lifesaving A.C. swim club facing its own peril

Posted: September 28, 2012

The Atlantic City Aquatic Club is a great bargain, especially if you happen to live in Atlantic City. For $200 a year, you get instruction from coaches who have sent swimmers to the Junior Olympics, to college teams and to national meets, where one 10-year-old boy recently broke a backstroke record set by the young Michael Phelps.

The club is also a lifesaver, says Enoe Azcona, and not just because the single mom has raised two children on an island. As her son, Jorge, learned to swim, he shed 60 pounds and gained strength from a team of achievers that kept him from the call of the streets.

Here's where the but comes in.

The Atlantic City Board of Education has looked around at other districts and determined that the $6,500 it charges the club to use the Atlantic City High School pool is too good a deal.

How does $85,000 a year sound?

To many families it sounds like the end of a dream. Azcona and her 16-year-old son sit in the steaming balcony, overlooking the 25-meter pool where kids of all shapes, sizes, and colors swim laps.

Jorge is wearing street clothes. Too much homework to practice the 100-meter fly today, his mother says, but she's dragged him to the pool anyway, so they can talk to me.

"He was 12, overweight, with high cholesterol," says the tiny Mexican émigré, wearing a nose stud and black kerchief. "He was doing nothing - only eating and going to school. I made him practice every day."

Jorge, now big-shouldered and slim, adds: "It's helped me in a lot of ways. It's built strength, endurance. It's helped with my asthma."

Even paying the discounted $200 dues - each swimmer who lives outside the city pays closer to $1,000 - has required sacrifices for Azcona, who is 49 and undergoing treatment for breast cancer. She just returned to work, after a six-month break, to keep her health insurance. She cleans the public areas of the Wild Wild West casino, where her twilight shift begins at 3:45 a.m.

She loses her composure for a second, and her son pats her back as she says through tears: "I see him swim and it's like me fighting for life. I want him to be successful. I don't want him cleaning toilets in the casino like me."

Azcona was one of four swim-club supporters who got to speak at a school board meeting Sept. 18 before comment was curtailed due to an approaching storm.

Assistant Superintendent Barry Caldwell shared a list with the school board detailing what other districts charge to use their pools, saying, "I don't think this board is out of line with their pricing."

Joe Haney, an Atlantic City firefighter who serves as president of the swim club, says the kids already endured a challenging summer when the pool was closed for renovations. Swimmers had to practice elsewhere. Some left the club for good.

"Maybe they think we're sitting on a pile of money," said Haney. "We're not." Under the new rates, he figures the club can survive one more month.

The school district gave the club a one-month contract for September - $315 a day, which is how the $85,000 annual cost is derived. Next month the club and school district will meet again to set a final price.

Dimitar Petrov, a Bulgarian native who as a boy was a champion 1,500-meter distance swimmer, serves as the club's head coach when not teaching special-ed math at Pleasantview High.

"These families are not well-off," he said. "You look at the other clubs in the area - their kids play different sports all season. For these kids, it's the only thing. Their parents don't have the money. They don't have the time. It's an insane struggle just to get the kids here some days."

Thiem Le was 8 when he joined the club. Nervous and green, he felt welcomed and safe. Now a 16-year-old junior at the high school, he's a record-setter, and aiming for a college career. He worries what he'll do if the club folds. "Swimming," he says, "has honestly changed my life."

Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @danielrubin or Facebook at http://ph.ly/DanRubin

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