Marlins Swim Program Producing a
Determined Team of Island Youngsters

A visitor to the Sportspark pool any day after 5:00 p.m. will find all six lanes busy. The water is churned into a white froth, with swimmers practically head to toe as they follow a circular pattern, up one side of a lane and down the other. In the right lanes are ages 10 to 12; the middle lanes are for more advanced; and the left lanes have an older group preparing for competition. This is the Roosevelt Island Marlins Swim Team – 30 to 40 swimmers at any one time – in a practice session.

Supervising all this activity are coach Michael Gavrilchin and assistant coach Lenny Gori. Mike, as he is known to all, began his coaching career at Old Westbury Aquatics. Two years ago, he answered an ad seeking a coach for the Marlins. An accomplished swimmer, he recently finished in first place in the butterfly event during an Eastern College Athletic Conference meet in Pittsburgh. He devotes most of his attention to the older swimmers, while Lenny Gori helps prepare the younger swimmers to move into the higher ranks.

Mike has two guiding principles in his instruction. “First, I want to build team spirit. Swimming is done individually, but it is important that each person sees himself or herself as part of a team. Second, I insist that pool time is quality time. By that, I mean that each individual stroke and each turn must be done correctly. This requires constant concentration, and is the only way to become a truly competent swimmer.”

The program is rigorous, with two hours of practice each day, 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. On Saturday, it starts at 7:00 a.m. Sunday is reserved for mild workouts at each swimmer’s discretion.

The Marlins approach their training session with remarkable enthusiasm. Waiting for the session to begin, they talk animatedly with teammates, many hopping up and down, eager to enter the water. The camaraderie is evident. It’s clear that Mike is succeeding in that team-spirit effort.

The Marlins have recently been benefiting from the assistance of Brian Brown, a swim coach with 20 years’ experience. He is head coach of Asphalt Green Unified Aquatics in Manhattan, and now the program director for the Marlins. He oversees practice sessions three or four days a week. Coach Brown and his two assistants, Mike Smit and Lauren Morford, observe the team to make assessments and offer recommendations for improving the program.

The Marlins program began when two Westview moms, Sofiya Andjelic and Slavica Plecas-Gak, wanted swimming instruction for their children on Roosevelt Island rather than having to travel to Manhattan or Queens. They saw swimming as the ideal physical development activity – a non-impact sport that enhances muscle growth and flexibility of tendons and joints. They found an instructor, but the cost made it necessary to bring in more children to share the expense. Sofiya and Slavica began asking other mothers if they would like to have their children learn to swim. They hoped for 10 more children – and drew almost 50 at the first session in January 2005. Shortly thereafter, the first volunteer parent board was elected to handle administrative matters. In September 2005, the program received tax status as a non-profit organization.

The Marlins program today involves more than the swimmers who assemble each day at Sportspark pool. In the belief that one can’t begin too early to learn to swim, the Marlins sponsor a babies and toddlers program for children six months to three years. Those classes are conducted at the Westview pool, where management promises to maintain a water temperature of 84 to 86 degrees. Each 30-minute session is limited to six children. An adult is always present. Coaches work on getting infants used to the water, and on teaching parents how to work on their own with their children. Creative games teach infants breath control, and arm and leg movements. Floating mats, toys, and songs enhance the learning experience.

The Marlins Juniors program is designed for children who do not swim and are not comfortable in the water. Coaches work closely and slowly to have them feel comfortable in the pool and then progress to moving independently in the water.

The Intermediate group consists of children ages 10 and under who are graduates of the Learn-to-Swim program and are working to improve their skills and move up to the team at Sportspark.

The Marlins team itself is divided into three groups based on ability. The Juniors group consists primarily of children ages 11 and 12 plus some 10-year-olds who are ready for competition. To be a Junior, a swimmer must be competent in all four basic swimming strokes: free style, backstroke, butterfly, and breaststroke. This group is subdivided into several smaller groups based on performance, practice evaluation, and level of commitment.

The senior group is for swimmers at least 14 years old. It is also subdivided into smaller groups. A minimum practice commitment is required to become a senior swimmer. Their training schedule is more rigorous than at the lower level, and the competition in swim meets is more intense.

The elite group is the highest level. Its members are generally 12 and older. Their training is even more intense, aimed at preparing the members for competition at the highest levels for their age groups. At present, this group has a preponderance of swimmers who were born in other countries or whose parents are recent arrivals in the United States. Milos Gak is 17 and tall, with an impressive physique, obviously someone the others look up to. “I started swimming when I was 11, in the Westview pool. I liked it from the start. Coach Mike constantly motivates us to do better. I enjoy the competition, and I am trying to be as good as I can be.”

Omar Hamzic, 14, has been swimming for eight years, first at a YMCA and then with the group at Westview. “I compete all the time because I love the competition. Also, swimming is a well-balanced sport that develops your whole body,” he says.

At 18, Kristijan Naumovski is the “elder statesman” of the elite group. He says, “I started swimming when I was nine years old in Macedonia. I came to the United States two years ago, with my parents, to live on Roosevelt Island. I swim because I love the competition and because I hope to earn a swimming scholarship to college. Also, I am working hard to make the national team of Macedonia and appear in the Olympics.”

Andrea Gasic, 14, has been swimming for seven years. “At first, I started just because I liked swimming, but then I got competitive, and it’s all worth it when you get your medals. I started loving it with the team and everyone supporting you.”

These four swimmers and others on the Marlins have many medals from the swim meets held regularly in the tri-state area. They are proud of their achievements, and have dedicated themselves to reaching the highest levels of their sport. Their parents know that even if they never achieve Olympic stature, the mental and physical benefits of competitive swimming will last all their lives.

At a recent Marlins practice session, Hannah Milic intently watched the activity from spectator seating. She has been swimming for two months in the program at Westview, but she comes to Sportspark to watch the Marlins practice. “I’m looking to see what they do and what strokes they use. Then I go back and practice what I saw. I stay for half an hour after my practice at Westview to practice what Lenny was demonstrating. I want to make the Marlins team more than anything. It’s the only thing I’m good at. I’ve tried volleyball and tennis and other sports, but any sport where you use your hands, I don’t get at all. I want to get out and accomplish something.” Hannah may be only 11, but her ambition is ageless.

Making the Marlins team is only the beginning. The mothers of children in the swim program have found unexpected benefits – improvement in their children’s school work, an increase in their ability to focus on it, and increased discipline in doing their homework. As one mother put it, “My two children sit right down after school and get to their homework immediately so they will finish before swim practice begins at 5:00. The discipline they need for competitive swimming carries over into other parts of their lives, and they stay at a task until it is done, rather than giving up if it is difficult to accomplish.”

The Marlins have just announced a partnership with the Make a Splash program, designed for children of all ages who want to learn to swim. It’s a national child-focused water-safety initiative created by the Swimming Foundation, with the goal of teaching every child in America to swim. The program will begin in mid-March, and be free for all participants. Additional information can be obtained by calling 646-415-8583 or on the Marlins website,


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