Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Miguel Contreras Learning Complex Swimming Pool.--More than just a pool

When I was 9 years old two things happened: I became a competitive swimmer in the AAU and I joined the Crenshaw YMCA. At that time the Crenshaw YMCA was expanding its programs and it formed what was the GRA-Y. The GRA-Y was a group of clubs. Club membership was determined by where a child lived in the various neighborhoods that surrounded the YMCA, or by where a child attended school. It was a sports league, human relations laboratory among other things. It was a place where minority kids could spend quality times with their fathers who were all role models for us. It was a place where we could begin the socialization process so we could blend or assimilate into society at large. We were able to travel to places and experience environments that were outside of the immediate area like the Los Angeles National Forest.
It was also a time when fathers could spend quality time with their young sons and provide examples on how to conduct yourselves as adults and as community citizens. Those that did not have fathers were able to benefit from the fathers that were at the meetings, club gatherings and outings or field trips.
My father, a career Los Angeles Unified School District(LAUSD)educator suggested that the members of my club name ourselves the COBRAS. We loved it and that was the name that was on our team tee-shirt and we wore it with pride.

I was swimming every day in my club swim workouts but, in addition to that, I swam daily at the Rancho Cienega Park swim pool adjacent to Dorsey High School. I was a constant figure inside of the pool and my father was a constant observer in the stands. The pool allowed for me to develop my swim skills, stay off of the streets and strive to become a Junior Olympic Champion. I remember when the Tokyo Olympics came on and I watched Don Schollander win 4 gold medals. He was from Yale College and it was the first time I had heard of a college other than USC or UCLA. So that swim pool at Rancho indirectly exposed me to even more environments and opportunities.

As you know my return to swimming, training at USC for the Los Angele Triathlon, was the main ingredient in the successful ending of my substance abuse. Everyday, I went to USC and swam. Interesting enough, I met a man there who was a very good swimmer. He was older than I and he introduced himself to me as Dr. Hart. I remember reading, in the swimming meet results, in Swimming World Magazine, of a man named Hart in 1964. He won many meets and he was on the swim team with Don Schollander at Yale. I asked him where he went to college and he said Yale. Yes, it was the same man about him I read in the magazine. Thirty eight years later, at another people three thousand miles away from where he was living where I first read about him, I met him.
In the spring of 2007, while residing at the shelter in Skid Row, to which I was ordered by the court, I went home to retrieve a couple of things. I could not stay long because I would get into trouble but I managed to grab my swim goggles. I stuffed them in my bag and grabbed my bicycle and rode back to Skid Row, one of the loneliest moments in my entire life that I experienced.

I hung those goggles where I could see them every day. I thought of swimming every day while in jail and what it did for me and I needed to experience it again. I never gave up the idea that I would have that chance, though, in Skid row it was hard to believe that nothing of enjoyment would ever enter my world again. It hurt remembering those days swimming at USC, talking to all of the swimmers and the coaches. They inspired me and had so much to do with my ending a lifestyle of substance abuse. That pool trained so many Olympic swimmers and it felt good to embrace the lifestyle of dedication, devotion, discipline and determination.

I was determined to keep the dream alive, sitting in that shelter, day in and day out. One day, in the summer of 2007, I read, in the Downtown News, where the Contreras Learning Complex had opened up, and there was discussion about opening up the pool for community use. I did not pay too much attention to the article--the important thing was that I became aware of the fact that a new pool was in the area and if they ever opened it, I could afford the cost of it as USC was too far as well as expensive and the Ketchum YMCA membership was beyond my budget as well.

Finally I obtained a job and the chance to begin my fitness program was again in my thoughts but I had a way to go before I could make it happen. And once again, and article about the Miguel Contreras pool was in the Downtown News. Mayor Villaraigosa dedicated the opening of the pool for the summer to the community.

I moved off of San Julian St. and the Olympics were approaching. Months before the 2004 Olympics began was the time when I was when I was on the path of fitness again at the USC pool. The Olympics were here again and I wanted to feel the water and begin once again my fitness program, that same program that helped me end a career of substance abuse.

It all seemed perfect. The was no better time to start my training. The Olympics were only a week away. I had moved into a new unit and left most of the past behind me. The former USC swim Coach had left and become the director of USA swimming and was in charge of the Olympic swim team. I definitely felt a connection there as He and I had become friends.

So I found my goggles and rode my bike up to the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex. It was a beautiful new facility, situated on a hill, above a valley, where you could see for miles. It was in contrast to the limited view that I had for so long on Skid Row. But that had changed because my new unit had a expansive view. I guess all of that was in line with the new attitude on life.

The first thing I saw was the School name, the COBRAS. It reminded me immediately of my father, the YMCA clubs and their purpose of developing young men. I could not help but think about how families were able to spend quality time together and boys were off the streets. Instead of getting into trouble, they were having good, healthy fun.

Needless to say, I had a great swim and went there for three weeks. The strength came back and the feeling of building a new life and looking forward was ingrained in me more and more each time I left.

But that was not the important thing. The most important thing was watching the kids having fun, jumping off the diving boards while older brothers and sisters held the hands of their younger sisters with their first attempts of being inside big pool. Mothers played with the kids and enjoyed the company of their husbands.

One Latina girl really caught my attention. She was not frolicking in the pool. She was hard at work swimming laps. She was nine years old, and was doing the butterfly stroke, which is the hardest of the competitive strokes to do at any age--but at nine years old, damn near impossible. It takes hard work and dedication to master the rhythm, acquire the strength and understand the synchronization involved. Clearly she had been doing this for some time. Her parents sat proudly watching her and her father would encourage her. She was a little tiger in that water.

And now the pool is closed until next summer. It is a shame. Again, it is not important that I train. It is important for those families to spend time together. It is important for those children to have the chance to spend time with their mothers and fathers while being taught by their older siblings. It is important that that little latina girl have the opportunity to continue developing her swimming, something that will give her confidence far beyond the swim pool. It is important that they learn and experience something new and realize that there is a big world out here and it is theirs for the taking.


The pool did so much for me in my life. It exposed me to worlds and developed my mind and body. When I was lost, it was there and I found it. And by finding it, I found myself again. And just those few days I swam this summer, this Olympic year put me back in touch with my dreams.

I love that name the Cobras. It was the name my father gave us and I saw the spirit of the YMCA purpose in the Cobras swimming pool where families could be together and where children could develop. That pool did a lot for me. It gave me a chance to feel what it was like to have recreation in my life again and to relax. It gave me a chance to see a young latina girl pursue her dreams.

My father, a career LAUSD teacher, would have loved seeing that activity at the pool. I hope it reopens and the families can continue to enjoy it during the weekends. Those parents could watch their daughter swim and that little latina girl could pursue her dreams of competitive swimming. Years from now, I may have a chance to watch her in the Olympic games.

63 comments:

carolinarnj said...

Another incredible story of endurance and determination. You are a very strong individual Walter, way to go.

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(This is guaranteed laughs in the Chinese classroom. It was from the beginning a bit in a Pink Panther movie).

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