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Debut of Long Bridge aquatics center makes waves among county swim classes

The 25-yard lanes, which can be turned into a 50-meter pool, in the Long Bridge Park Aquatics & Fitness Center (staff photo)

This year saw major changes to how Arlington County and Arlington Public Schools run community swim classes, to the surprise of some locals.

In July, Arlington Public Schools launched the APS Aquatics School for students and residents, while the county opened the Long Bridge Aquatics & Fitness Center in August.

APS’s new program prompted the county’s Department of Parks and Recreation to relocate most of its classes from local public high schools to the new facility near Crystal City. Since September, Long Bridge has been home to all county classes — save youth swim team practices — which officials say centralizes the county’s program and serves more people.

“Arlington County has long known the community demand for aquatics programs far exceeded the pool capacity in Arlington Public Schools,” said parks department spokeswoman Susan Kalish. “Opening a long-awaited community treasure is hard enough, opening it amidst a pandemic has been amazing. We are happy as to how the Long Bridge Aquatics & Fitness Center has been received. And with the opening, there are now more opportunities than ever.”

Until this fall, DPR scheduled all classes, competitive swim team training and public swim time in the pools at Wakefield, Washington-Liberty and Yorktown high schools. With Long Bridge and the new school program up and running, APS and DPR are hammering out a new policy for sharing facilities. In the meantime, folks are still learning about and adjusting to the changes, per social media and emails to ARLnow.

“This is huge,” one tipster tells us. “The neighborhood school pools are one of the silent gems of Arlington… I don’t think anyone thought the aquatic center would take neighborhood pool classes.”

The school system started its swim class program on July 14 to recover more of the costs to maintain the pools and offer affordable classes, APS spokesman Frank Bellavia said.

Initially, Kalish says the school system asked DPR to move all programs to Long Bridge, including practice for the youngest members of Arlington Aquatic Club — the county-run competitive swim program that helped train Olympic medalist Torri Huske.

“It became apparent that youth swim teams are more successful when their training base is close to home,” she said. “This school year, per [a School Board policy], APS is allowing five practice groups to train about 15 hours a week at Wakefield and W-L pools.”

DPR decides which groups to schedule at the high school pools and pays APS to use them, Bellavia said.

Today, APS offers drowning prevention and learn-to-swim classes for babies, toddlers, children and adults, and fitness classes for adults and seniors.

Classes are staffed and filling up, Bellavia says, despite difficulties recruiting lifeguards and swimming instructors — another impact of nationwide workforce shortages.

“[The] APS Aquatics School implementation plan is on schedule and both the Summer and Fall term have been fully staffed and the courses, especially PreK School and Swim School, have been fully subscribed with a few experiencing small waitlist,” Bellavia said.

Classes generally fill up within the first week of registration, which opens 30 days before the session starts, he added.

“We have a new teacher who is very good,” said one Facebook user of her experience in W-L’s water aerobics class. “I get a true workout.”

Likewise, Kalish says the Long Bridge aquatics programs are “very popular.”

“In our first program session since opening, 135 of the 185 classes were at maximum enrollment capacity, and the ones that were not full only had a few spaces available,” she said. “Nearly 1,400 participants enrolled in this session. We did still see a large waitlist, particularly with weekend and evening classes. We will continue to monitor our class enrollments and increase capacity where we can.”

Not everyone initially caught wind of the changes, however, and some lament that classes were moved 5 to 8 miles from their local high school.

“I miss having [classes] at W-L,” said a Facebook user.

When asked if DPR can do more to advertise the changes, Kalish said “there is lots more we can and will do to keep the momentum going.”

“We’re starting a regular [email newsletter] about center activities, and we will be reorienting our website’s fitness options to make it easier to find options, as there is more to do at Long Bridge than the pools,” she said.

In the new year, Kalish said DPR will introduce birthday party rentals, plus water walking and other new programs, and will also explore additional rental options, programming and promotional opportunities.

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