By Jordan Ercit
Kitchener Post staff
On a typical Wednesday night at the Cameron Heights pool, try finding space in the water during a KW Synchronized Swim Club practice.
It is akin to finding a parking spot at the mall during Christmas.
Not long ago, it was entirely the opposite.
Sam Kowalski, who joined the club as a coach seven years ago, remembers it well. With just eight kids on one team, there were times when the 23-year-old would have to jump in the pool and show students how to implement their routine.
But at least that was something to do.
“It was pretty dead most of the time,” she said. “It was frustrating, because the girls didn’t have any role models to base their experience on, no one to show them what to do.
“We (the coaches) were the ones getting in the water to show them how it’s done. Usually, it’s the older girls who get to do the demos.”
Nowadays, the only free time Kowalski can find at practice is 15 minutes before the girls hit the water. And in this case, it’s to talk to a reporter.
With 61 competitive swimmers split between eight competitive and pre-competitive teams and up to 19 coaches patrolling the pool deck at a time, KW Synchro practices can get pretty intense with music, coaches and two dozen giggly 12-and-under girls to co-ordinate.
That is just Kowalski’s job description.
“The membership is so full sometimes we don’t have enough coaches to keep up,” the Wilfrid Laurier University sociology major said. “No one’s allowed to get sick, because we don’t have enough girls to cover.”
That’s not a complaint; just a fact of life for the KW Synchro Club, which three years ago was close to folding.
Enter Catrine Klein and Lori Kowalski, Sam’s mom, who after three years of canvassing people at malls or scrounging public pools for interested students, has seen membership mushroom to 128 girls on 14 teams — from four-year-olds to masters, and recreational to competitive.
“It’s unbelievable how far they’ve come,” Jessica Chase, the club’s coach mentor and a former Olympian, said. “One of the biggest reasons I make the trek every week (she lives in the GTA) is the volunteer and parent commitment is so great here.
“They’re dedicated to making it a positive experience for the girls.”
When it came to attracting new athletes, Klein, the club president, and Lori Kowalski, the director of programs and human resources, made sure they were everywhere and visible to the public.
That meant holding free synchro days and trying to get kids to sign up at public swims. That meant setting up booths at local malls. And when kids cocked an ear and showed interest, it meant keeping them around with coaches who were former high-level athletes and additional workshops on health and wellness.
“It’s become like a family now,” Rachel Kowalski, Sam’s sister, said. “We want to be inviting and encouraging. We’re very hands-on, too, we’ll come to you.”
Having Chase and Rachel Kowalski certainly helps.
Chase twice competed in the Summer Olympic Games, helping the Canadian team win bronze in 2000 in Sydney, Australia, and finish fifth in 2004 in Athens, Greece. Kowalski, meanwhile, was a member of the national junior and senior teams and spent the last two years at the Synchro Canada national centre of excellence in Montreal.
Last year, those connections helped them land a visit from national team head coach Meng Chen and a chance to visit and swim with the national team in Montreal.
More importantly, though, is that Chase and Rachel Kowalski have been able to bring their experience back to KW on a regular basis.
It has been an enjoyable transition for Rachel Kowalski, although leaving the national team — which included transferring from political science at Concordia University to legal studies at the University of Waterloo — was hard at first.
“I enjoy watching the progress the girls have made,” she said. “Seeing them at the beginning and at the end, the progress they’ve made, it’s enjoyable for me, too.”