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Second chance to make a splash

With budget woes decimating District and city pools, a legendary swim coach fights to keep competitive swimming alive in North Philly.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

From the beginning, Jim Ellis has been committed to a singular vision.

“My swim team was started with the purpose of achieving at the highest level possible,” the renowned 61-year old coach declares. “That’s what set us apart from any other swim team in the country that was in the inner city.”

Ellis began to pursue this goal in 1971, when he started as a 22-year-old part-time swim instructor at Sayre Community Recreation Center in West Philadelphia.

At a time when African-Americans were largely excluded from elite swimming programs in a city with little appetite for competitive swimming, Ellis’s plan was seen as either revolutionary or crazy.

Looking back, it’s difficult to decide which part of his story is most unbelievable: that he built the world-class PDR Swimming club from scratch; that his astonishing success was never fully embraced by Philadelphia’s powers that be; or that now, 38 years later, he’s getting a second chance to do it all again.

The PDR legend

“I had an opportunity, I had a pool, and I was idealistic,” Ellis recalls. “We were going to achieve what I set out to do, and that was it.”

PDR Swimming (Ellis says the name was inspired by German Democratic Republic, or GDR, swim teams of the 1970s) has sent seven swimmers to the U.S. Olympic trials, placed dozens in the national rankings for their age groups, and sent Philadelphia children to compete worldwide.

“We achieved within the sport,” he said. “My resume speaks for itself.”

Ellis’s vision, however, runs deeper than training champion swimmers.

From the beginning, he saw his team as a vehicle for touching lives.

According to Michael Major, president of the PDR Parents Club and father of two PDR swimmers, the team has sent its members to over 30 colleges and universities, many on scholarship.

“My kids love him,” says Major. “They were not upper-echelon swimmers, but Jim always spent just as much time with them. It was about helping you to get where you were capable of going.”

Remarkably, Ellis built PDR into a national powerhouse in the mornings and evenings, around his full-time job as a high school math teacher for the District, most recently at Bodine.

The recreation department paid his part-time salary as a water safety instructor. The District owned and was responsible for maintaining the pools (first at Sayre and then, beginning in 1980, at the Marcus Foster Indoor Pool on Germantown Avenue in Nicetown.)

Everything else – uniforms, electronics, weight-training equipment, travel expenses – came from parents, private donations, and Ellis’s own pocket.

In the early days at Sayre, Ellis and his swimmers sold pretzels and water ice to raise the entry fees to regional swim meets.

By the 1980s, the club’s advisory committee had incorporated as a nonprofit to accept grants and donations, the largest being a $30,000 contribution from Coca-Cola.

“I spent that money for a long time,” Ellis recalls fondly. “I can squeeze a penny til it hollers.”

In 2007, the PDR story was chronicled in the Hollywood movie Pride, with Academy Award-nominated actor Terrance Howard playing Ellis. From the outside, it seemed that PDR was ready to become an institution that could serve as a model for urban swim teams around the country.

A dream deferred

But by April 2008, PDR Swimming was homeless. Citing safety concerns and millions in needed repairs, the District closed Marcus Foster pool.

“When you close anything, it’s a hard decision,” says District Spokesperson Vincent Thompson. “But the pool was not in a condition for the safety of children.”

A recent tour of Foster with District officials revealed how severely the building has deteriorated over the past 29 years.

Pat Henwood, vice president of the District’s Office of Capital Projects, says it would take almost $2 million to reopen Foster, and another $450,000 per year to keep it running.

Everything from the roof to the fire alarm system to the pools themselves needs to be fixed, he says.

Despite lingering acrimony, District officials and Ellis agree that the problems stem from years of deferred maintenance.

Citing just one example, Henwood explains that the rooftop HVAC system “probably should have been replaced 10 years ago. But because the money wasn’t available, [the District] continued to throw band-aid after band-aid on it.”

“Marcus Foster was a brand-spanking new facility when I was assigned there,” agrees Ellis. “But it was not maintained.”

Even now, he can barely contain his frustration.

“I figured if they saw the good things that were happening with our kids, in and out of the pool, they would sit down and say, ‘OK, Jim, how can we do this over the whole city?’”

“That never happened,” he says ruefully.

A national trend

The Foster closing is just part of a larger trend.

This school year, the District will operate only seven of the 12 pools it owns. In addition to Foster, the District has closed its pools at William Penn, E.W. Rhodes, University City, and Shallcross since June 2004.

One new District pool, an approximately $5 million addition to the new Fels High School in the Northeast, opened this September, despite the objections of facilities staff worried about maintenance costs – and an outraged Ellis.

The city’s Department of Recreation, meanwhile, has closed 27 pools.

The trend is not limited to Philadelphia, says John Cruzat, a diversity specialist with USA Swimming. “Closing pools has always been a budget-control measure,” he says, especially in urban centers. As a result, PDR has suffered, despite its success.

From a high of over 200 swimmers in the mid-1980s, the club’s current active membership is down to three.

“Everything is on hold,” says Ellis. “We’re trying to regroup and refresh our vision.”

A new hope

A huge component of that new vision is currently taking shape at Wissahickon Avenue near Hunting Park Avenue in Nicetown.

In March 2009 the Salvation Army began work on the Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center of Philadelphia, a $72 million, 130,000 square-foot multi-use community center that will include an indoor aquatics center.

“Initially, we planned for a smaller facility that included a water park and a competitive swimming pool,” says Major Timothy Lyle, the Kroc Center administrator. But early plans for the pool were scuttled because of cost. Then Salvation Army officials met Ellis.

“When we were exposed to Jim and what he had done with limited resources, our vision [for the aquatics center] quickly grew,” says Lyle.

“He helped us to see what could be done if we could include a competitive pool. You’re not just teaching kids how to swim – you’re getting them involved with a structured, disciplined program that is a good springboard into other things in their life.”

Barely a year away from its expected opening, the Kroc Center will include a state-of-the-art 10-lane competition pool built by Myrtha, makers of the pools used in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.

The Salvation Army plans to sustain the facility through a $58 million endowment, $53 million of which has already been raised.

And both the Army and Ellis are expecting the pool to be the new home of PDR Swimming.

At a recent visit to the Kroc Center construction site, Ellis smiled broadly as he stood in the center of a 25-meter-long gravel pit that will soon be filled with water.

Finally, it seems that others are echoing his vision.

“We see a tremendous pool of talent in North Philadelphia,” says Lyle. “It just needs access to opportunity.”

For more information on the Salvation Army’s ongoing capital campaign to fund the Ray and Joan Kroc Community Center of Philadelphia, please visit www.salvationarmykroccenter.org.

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