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New swim club in Iqaluit breaks the ice on swimming

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By Jim Morris

Given time, coach Stephanie Clark believes swimmers from the Iqaluit Breakers Swim Club will compete at the Arctic Winter Games and travel to meets in the south to race athletes from other clubs across Canada.

She even dreams of the day when one of the Breakers qualifies for a Swimming Canada national team. But for now, Clark is just trying to teach her swimmers how to do a flip turn.

“That’s a point of contention with me and my swimmers,” Clark explained. “They refuse to do flip turns because they get water up their noses. That’s the kind of stuff we are working on.”

The first ever official swimming club in Nunavut has about 48 members, ranging from age eight to 18.

“Right now it’s a recreational swim team as opposed to a competitive club,” said Clark. “It’s an opportunity for us to expose young people in the territory and in town to competitive swimming.

“We focus on the structure of the sport, talk about the four strokes, talk about flip turns, all those kinds of pieces. Eventually we’d like to go to some meets.”

Swim Manitoba played a key role to help make the Iqaluit Breakers become an official club.

Swimming Canada has given official recognition to the Breakers, something Clark considers a major step in the team’s development.

“It’s important for the team to be recognized by Swimming Canada so that we are able to participate in the bigger picture of swimming in this country,” she said. “We are small, and we are just starting out as a club again, but we intend to grow the team and hope to spark a passion for some of the kids in our community.

“Being able to travel to meets, though costly, will give our team another healthy, positive avenue in their lives to explore as they grow”

Iqaluit, the capital of the territory of Nunavut, is located on Baffin Island at the northern end of Frobisher Bay. It has a population of around 7,740 people, with about 56 per cent Inuit.

The Breakers were formed soon after the Iqaluit Aquatic Centre opened in January 2017. The centre has a six-lane, 25-metre pool.

“It’s the first time we had an aquatic centre or a pool in about six years,” said Clark, who is the recreation services manager for the municipality. “It’s very tropical, especially when you look outside and it’s blustery and cold. It’s really nice to be indoors and on deck.”

A previous unofficial swim club in Iqaluit used to train in a “postage-stamp sized” pool at a local hotel.

“It’s now a ballroom,” said Clark. “It’s a beautiful ballroom. You wouldn’t know it was a pool.”

One of the goals of the Breakers club is to introduce swimming to as many members of the community as possible.

“We’re trying to be as inclusive as possible,” said Clark. “One of the major barriers to swimming is cost. That was a critical point for us (since) we do have a lot of lower incomes families in our community. We want to make sure they have the same opportunity as everyone else.”

The Breakers don’t have a specific Para-swimming program but swimmers with a disability are welcomed.

“If you want to swim, we will make it work for you,” Clark said.

Instead of having a 10-month program the Breakers operate in three sessions each year. Swimmers are charged $100 for each session.

Clark and her brother, who works for the Nunavut department of finance, coach the team as volunteers. The city runs the program so the club doesn’t have to pay pool fees.

When you live in an environment where the yearly average high temperature is -5.6 degrees celsius, swimming doesn’t always come naturally. Clark said there were challenges when the pool first opened.

The first month or two the lifeguards were very busy, jumping in and getting people out

“The first month or two the lifeguards were very busy, jumping in and getting people out,” she said. “It was a little hairy because people have no fear and they are really excited about (being in the water).

“They love splashing around, then all of a sudden they realize they don’t have the feel, they go into the deep, and here we go.”

Like many Canadian communities, hockey is the sport that attracts many young people in Iqaluit. The town also has a speed skating and figure skating program. Still, kids are finding their way to the pool.

“What we are finding is that kids who can’t afford hockey, or don’t like to play hockey, the kids who don’t fit in the hockey crowd, are actually gravitating toward the pool,” said Clark. “It’s another opportunity for something year round that young people can do.

“I think we’re becoming a critical piece of the fabric of recreation and leisure in his community, especially for young people.”

One of Clark’s goals is to attract more young Inuit swimmers into the program.

“We would like to have more,” she said. “That’s partly why we keep fees low so more of the lower income families can come in.”

Clark grew up in Outlook, Sask., and swam for the Saskatoon Goldfins Swim Club. After realizing she was “a better coach than swimmer” she went on to coach in southern Ontario.

Many of the Breakers’ swimmers are still in the development stage but Clark believes they have potential.

“We have a lot of really awesome athletes on the team,” she said. “They are speed skaters, figure skaters, hockey players, those types of things.

“They are four or five years behind a comparative person down south. We are sort of trying to play catch up a little bit in the development side of things.”

While travel in the north can be expensive, Clark said “it’s not an insurmountable challenge.”

The territorial government offers support and the club does fundraising.

Clark believes travelling to meets is essential for the team’s development.

“You can do all this time and effort and practice, but the competition piece is really critical,” said Clark. “The more competitions we can actually get people to go to, the better.”

Clark said cost and distance shouldn’t be a barrier for any swimmer to find success.

MacKenzie Downing, who grew up in Whitehorse and swam for the Whitehorse Glacier Bears, competed at three Universiades and reached the semifinal in the 100-metre butterfly at 2007 FINA World Championships in Melbourne, Australia.

“It’s doable because we have a lot of passionate, committed kids who are very good at sports,” she said.

“If we are so lucky to have a young person who wants to swim, that’s awesome. We will take them as far as we can.”