Kids These Days: Sylvie Goldner and First Strokes

You *could* start this story with the toddler whose parents could never get her out of the pool, or the little kid who ran to the waves as soon as her feet hit the sand, or the 9-year-old who burst into tears when she dinged her flipturn at the Manhattan Makos tryouts. But better to start in the middle, a year ago, when Sylvie Goldner is a 10th-grader known around Bard High School as a competitive swimmer. Her friends there – one of the city’s more selective high schools, located way east on Houston – start asking if she would teach them how to swim. At first she thinks they are kind of kidding, but soon realizes that many of her classmates not only don’t know how to swim, they have never been in the water.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Sylvie, who lives on Greenwich (posed above at the Downtown Community Center pool during lunch laps). “All my life I have been surrounded by swimmers, so this really struck me. I just never knew it was an issue.”

So she snapped into action. By chance, an email came through from Bard offering $1000 grants for student projects. That bought her some lane time at the Seahorse Fitness Club near the school; the principal sent a note offering free lessons; and she got in the pool once a week with her first class of 10 classmates. She called it First Strokes, and the idea is it is solely for high schoolers new to the water.

“No kid my age wants to take lessons next to 3- and 4-year-olds,” she said. “This creates a community of teenagers who are learning together.”

That was March, and from then till the end of the school year the kids fit in 10 weekly lessons. They were all learning: while Sylvie is a competitive swimmer (breast stroke for Asphalt Green) and a certified lifeguard, she had to do a lot of research to educate herself as an instructor. She observed a friend who teaches kids in the city, read a dozen books on teaching swim, and upped her research when it came time to teach students how to tread water. That was the toughest – that is, after the challenge of just getting folks in the water.

“Even in the shallow end, some people were terrified and shaking when they got in,” she said. “There’s so much fear that the water instills, and for me it was such a place of joy.”

The kids came a long way: by the end, all of them could jump in and come to the surface, swim the length of the pool and tread water for at least 20 seconds. It had her jazzed. So she created a GoFundMe campaign and raised $6000 to take on 16 students over the summer. With that money almost gone, she couldn’t pay for lane time for fall, so she is retrenching and trying to go big: the plan is to raise enough money now to launch in several schools, since she has the girl-power among her swim friends to run even more classes if she can just get the money to rent the lanes.

She’s applied for 10 different grants and has upped her GoFundMe campaign to $50k. Her ultimate goal is to offer First Strokes to every high schooler in the city, but for now, she’d like to at least get to 60 kids per semester.

“It’s so life changing, and water safety is so important,” she notes. “So many of my friends thought they shouldn’t be in the water, that it wasn’t a place for them. It should be a place for everyone.”


1 Comment

  1. There’s an outdoor Olympic size pool in Hamilton Fish Park in Lower East Side. Perhaps she can work something out with the Parks Department to use it? Just an idea.