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The New Wave of Supercharged Swim Classes

Swimming instruction, long the purview of the YMCA, has witnessed a rise in schools offering smaller classes and warmer pools for much steeper prices

Lucy Higgins, 5, swims with instructor Johanly Sepulveda during a class at Imagine Swimming's location in New York City's Tribeca neighborhood in August. Video: Adrienne Grunwald for The Wall Street Journal


Summer may be ending, but Anastasia Smirnova will still be swimming every week with her 6-month-old daughter, Maya. The pair started taking baby swim lessons at the British Swim School in Secaucus, N.J., about two months ago and Maya can now float on her back independently—without the help of a flotation device.

“I wanted my baby to learn to love the water and not be scared of it,” says the 26-year-old Ms. Smirnova, an avid swimmer. “She’s a water baby now. When she’s crying, if you put her in the water, she stops.”

The Florida-based British Swim School, with 200 franchise locations, is part of a wave of private swim school chains across the country aiming to transform how children learn to swim.

Maya Smirnova practices floating on her own with British Swim School instructor Derian Lopez watching closely. Photo: British Swim School

Demand for dedicated children’s swim schools offering parents a more personalized experience than what’s on offer at the YMCA has created a marked shift over the past decade. Schools with a just handful of locations years ago are now expanding rapidly.

“Parents are a lot more active with their kids now. When I learned how to swim, my father just chucked me in a lake,” says Paul Preston, co-founder of Arizona-based Aqua-Tots Swim School, which has more than 90 franchise locations and favors instructors with backgrounds in childhood education. “This is not a coach with a clipboard and a whistle. Parents want their kids to have a great experience that’s also developmental.”

Nearly all the private swim schools promise a maximum class size of four children per instructor and pools heated to 88 or 90 degrees. (Lap pools typically range from 78 to 82 degrees.)

Because swimming is their only focus, they tend to offer more classes at more times and more locations. They may require instructors to have anywhere from 40 to 50 hours of training in their school’s proprietary swim-teaching techniques in addition to a lifeguard certification. All charge a premium over their local YMCA. And if the chains’ expansion is any indication, it’s a premium that plenty of parents are willing to pay.

Traditionally the YMCA was the first place parents turned when looking for swim lessons. With about 2,000 pools offering aquatics programs for 1.3 million children, it remains the country’s largest network of swim instruction.

The YMCA’s goal is to teach as many children as it can to swim, regardless of background, says Lindsay Mondick, senior manager of aquatics for YMCA-USA. “Our mission is to support communities.”

The organization revamped its swimming curriculum in 2016 with a primary focus on water safety: Drowning is the leading cause of death among healthy children under 5, and the second-leading cause of death for those under 15, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The YMCA isn’t competing with private swim schools for students, Ms. Mondick says—they’re competing for instructors: “Our biggest challenge is recruiting and retaining talented staff.”

One competitor is Goldfish Swim School, which originated in Michigan. It has over 70 franchise locations, with an additional 25 scheduled to open in the next year.

A class of Leapfrogs (for children ages 3 and up), follows instructions at an Aqua-Tots Swim School in Ahwatukee, Ariz. PHOTO: AQUA-TOTS SWIM SCHOOLS

Founders Chris and Jenny McCuiston created a curriculum based on the idea of guided play, like games that teach safety skills, that all franchisees must follow.

Pricing varies by location, ranging from about $85 a month for weekly lessons in parts of the Midwest to $120 a month in the Northeast. Mr. McCuiston encourages his owners to charge slightly above the local market rate—even by just a few dollars.

“We want to be the premium learn-to-swim product out there, and we’ll charge a bit of a premium for that,” he says.

The British Swim School charges between $20 and $42 a lesson, depending on location. “We are expensive, and I make no apologies for that,” says founder Rita Goldberg. “Our instructors don’t teach tennis lessons in the next hour. They are swimming professionals.”

Rather than building its own pools, British Swim School operates its franchises at underused existing pools at apartment complexes, hotels and health clubs. But pool management must meet the company’s standards on everything from cleaning systems to water temperature.

Robert Stapf opened his first British Swim School franchise at an elementary school pool in Jersey City, N.J., in early 2017. Last September, the JCC of Bayonne agreed to let him lease its pool three nights a week.

Within a month, executive director Ellen Goldberg disbanded the JCC’s swimming program in favor of Mr. Stapf’s. (She isn’t related to Rita Goldberg.) The classes have brought new members to the JCC. “You should see our facility on a weeknight now. It’s hopping,” she says.

Imagine Swimming has 14 locations in New York City. Its co-founders swam for the national teams of their home countries, Germany and Canada. They draw their staff from the ranks of internationally competitive swimmers.

“When you have a competitive swimmer who loves the sport and has dedicated so much of their life to swimming, it shows up in the quality of their teaching and lessons,” says Imagine COO Kate Pelatti, a former collegiate swimmer.

Swim teacher Johanly Sepulveda throws rings for children to dive and retrieve during a class at Imagine Swimming in Tribeca. PHOTOS: ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Jimmy Higgins and daughter, Claire, 2, take a Parent & Me baby swim class at Imagine. Mr. Higgins gets ready to pull Claire into the water.PHOTOS: ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Four years ago, when New Yorker Lauren Higgins started looking for swim lessons for her then-6-month-old daughter Lucy, she was primarily concerned with water safety. Her in-laws had a backyard pool.

She first checked her neighborhood YMCA in Long Island City, but found baby swim classes to be oversubscribed. Members got priority. Joining the YMCA didn’t make sense because their apartment building had a gym, she says.

That drove her to Imagine Swimming. Every Saturday morning for the past four years, the family has been getting up at 7 a.m. to drive to Manhattan for swim class for Lucy, now 5, and Claire, 2.

“If we take a few weeks off, they start asking when can they go back,” Ms. Higgins says.

Imagine’s rate of $47 a class is at the high end. (It and some other schools offer scholarships for low-income children.) But both girls could swim unassisted before age 3.

“When we go on vacation, people see a kid in swim-diapers diving for rings in the pool, and total strangers will approach us and say, ‘Holy mackerel, how can your kids swim like that?’” Ms. Higgins says.

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