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Inspired by a conversation with Documentary Producer and avid swimmer, Nana Fani-Kayode.
How many people do you know with their own swimming pool?
We thought so.
We've been making continual efforts to champion and encourage inclusivity at every level of the sport. But there's one aspect of inclusivity that doesn't always get much attention – and that's financial accessibility.
Runners can train just about anywhere. Weightlifters can invest in their own set of bars, and footballers can practice at some level wherever there's a ball and an open space.
But when you're a hardcore swimmer, you're at the mercy of your local facilities. So we took a look at the clubs and swimmers around the country that are coping with the rising price of swimming – and how swimmers of every ability are feeling the effects.
Just last month, a leisure centre in Enfield re-opened after the Covid-19 lockdown.
For most eager swimmers, this should have been a cause for celebration. But the re-opening was tainted by the news of a price hike to £8 per swim – a price that Councillor Joanne Laban called 'outrageous'.
If you're an enthusiastic swimmer getting into the pool three times a week, that comes out to around £100 a month, or £1200 per year, just to keep up with your regular exercise routine.
Compare that to a similar story back in 2015:
A swimming club in Buckinghamshire was faced with its own community outrage after a price hike – from £1.45 up to £2.10.
That may not be a direct like-for-like comparison. But it does give some indication of the difference in prices between a single swim over the course of just 5 years.
It's a problem faced by swimmers all over the country. Clubs in Cornwall are planning to increase lane hire costs from £13.50 to £18.50 per hour, clubs in Berkshire have increased the costs of their lessons by 37% – and one council in Scotland has raised the cost of swimming by as much as 84%.
It's clear that swimming clubs all over the UK are raising their prices. But are the clubs really to blame?
As swimmers, it's easy for us to assume that any increase in price is down to the decisions of our local swimming clubs.
But in reality, the clubs are facing their own price hikes, too.
Last year, one of the top swimming clubs in Wales was forced to double its membership fees for its swimmers after receiving their own price hike from the operator of the pool they use.
"We lost 57 members last year," said head coach Graham Wardell to the BBC. "We are a big, high-performing club. It's allowing children, whatever their background, to have a chance to reach the top in swimming, but it'll be a real shame to think we can no longer do that if more members quit because of this cost increase."
And these are no small numbers:
Up until 2017, the City of Cardiff Swimming Club was paying around £115,000 per year to use the pool.
But in 2018, that cost jumped up to around £167,000 per year – an increase which would almost guarantee rising costs for swimmers in order to keep the club afloat.
"The price rise is going to hit the families on low incomes," said Joanne Gossage, the mother of a 14-year-old swimmer who was competing at Welsh national level.
"These kinds of price rises will make the sport prohibitive. They may start wanting to progress and do the best they can in the club, then have the door closed on them because they can't afford to carry on."
Sadly, the struggles don't end with the swimming clubs, either.
Cardiff's pool operator raised its prices after a £1 million subsidy from the local council came to an end – which meant that the club's lower pool hire costs had always been at a discounted level.
And in many cases, a swimming club's leisure operator is itself a charitable organisation, rather than the profit-driven private company we might expect to see.
After Thame Swimming Club reopened after the Covid-19 lockdown, they began to struggle with the new restrictions on their opening times, compounded by the shock of an increase to their pool hire costs of nearly 50%.
In an open letter to the Prime Minister, the Chair of Thame Swimming Club, Phil Evans, wrote that their rising costs are "making it impossible for us to sustain the club going forward, as parents already pay a hefty monthly fee for membership".
But instead of blaming their leisure operator for the rise in pool hire costs, the Thame Club Chair described the "huge financial pressure" the operator was under, which was making it "impossible to fulfil their core principles as a charitable social enterprise to promote healthy and active lifestyles".
It's clear that there's a cascading effect of rising prices working its way down to the everyday swimmer. And if we want to see the price of swimming return to normal, we'll need a co-operative effort at every level – all the way up to the top.
Swimming clubs need to do all they can to keep their prices accessible for all kinds of swimmers – from the dedicated daily athlete to the families on low incomes trying to keep their kids in a healthy, active lifestyle.
Leisure operators need to do what they can to keep their pool hire costs at a reasonable level for the clubs – so more swimming clubs can stay in business, and give the next generation of ambitious swimmers the motivation and coaching they need.
And with so many clubs and leisure operators heavily reliant on their local councils for funding and subsidies, we need the government to show its support to help keep the sport alive and thriving.
"Access to sports like swimming should be a priority," said Documentary Producer Nana Fani-Kayode. "Not just for the mental and physical benefits, but for the fact that it literally saves lives."
"Accessing swimming in the 21st Century shouldn't be a privilege, but a universal right – especially in the current climate, where good health and mental balance are vitally important."
Written by Michael Chapman
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