The COVID-19 pandemic has touched all facets of life and society in Australia, including a very important Learn to Swim initiative that was being introduced to the campus by Sydney Uni Sport & Fitness (SUSF) when the pandemic struck.

With the arrival of a massive number of international students to campus in recent years, SUSF introduced free water safety classes for them. Kellie Warren, Swim Programs Manager, says learning to swim is a rite of passage for most Australian children.

“Many of our international students come from landlocked countries or societies where swimming is not on the agenda or part of the lifestyle,” she says.

“When they come to Australia, they want to join in our water culture, so the program caters for them. We offered lessons to 400 international students before the COVID pandemic. This semester, post-COVID, we have had 130 enrolments, which is testament to our fantastic team of teachers and the students’ desire to learn.

“We get so much gratification when they learn to swim and they are excited to learn. This program builds a sense of community. The students struggle and succeed together. Our instructors act as both sport and social mentors, some even share meals together.”

Just as importantly, the club has fostered a Learn to Swim program that has taught many thousands – from youngsters through to seniors – how to swim and enjoy the water safely. Much of the success of the club, whether it be from its elite programs or its Learn to Swim classes, comes from its coaches and the variety programs they deliver. Kellie Warren is one of the newer recruits to the SUSF Learn to Swim ranks. Her own career extended to state and national championships in 400m and 800m freestyle.

Kellie came to campus after the club had suffered a setback. In 2016, funding which the club received through Swimming Australia was cut, resulting in the loss of its high performance coaches and some of its high profile swimmers. Along with head coach and Gold Licence Paul Bruce, supported by Jake Hodgetts, Anton Nikulin and co-ordinator Justin Blake, Kellie has been part of the swim pathways restructure and rebuilding phase.

They’ve built a strong club culture with the aim of empowering young people to be champions, in and out of the water, for life. This has resulted in a significant growth in the number of student swimmers and Club membership. It has also resulted in improved numbers in the Learn to Swim ranks, which is where Kellie enters the fray. As a four-year-old she was taught to swim at the Hurstville pool by none other than Don Talbot, the renowned Olympic swimming coach.

“Don used to get in the water in the baby pool,” Kellie says. “I can vividly remember the small, shallow pool at Hurstville.

“I was then coached by Brian Wilkinson, the Olympic 200m butterfly swimmer, who teamed up with Don at Bankstown Baths, where they coached John and Ilsa Konrads, the Olympic gold medallists and world record holders.”

As a 15-year-old Kellie entertained ideas of becoming a butterfly competitor but shoulder injuries ruined that dream and she settled on freestyle distance swimming – 400m and 800m in the pool and longer distances in surf lifesaving ocean swims.

After retiring from competitive swimming Kellie started her tertiary education in Physiotherapy and Design, before raising her family and returning to her love of the water in 2003. She arrived at Sydney University three years ago after a long stint coaching at the Leichhardt Pool for the Inner West Council.

“It was a much bigger complex with four pools where we had 5000 in the Learn to Swim classes, including 4200 from local schools and 800 in the squad program,” she said.

“At Sydney University our space is restricted to two lanes, yet we have 850 in the Learn to Swim classes over seven days a week. Prior to COVID, the swim program was set to double with new infrastructure, which would have doubled the teaching area. This has been put on hold due to budget restraints.”

Kellie says Learn to Swim is a 10-week program run in conjunction with school terms, while the training squad swims throughout the year.

“Swimmers are not only taught strokes but vital water safety skills every week in a 30-minute class,” she says. “The Holiday Intensive Swim Program is on offer while school is out. This is great for fast-tracking skills or for families who are time poor during the term. Swimmers attend for five consecutive days, consolidating skills quickly.

“We also cater for local schools in the community, while local schools in the city use the facilities for the sports programs and we also manage school carnivals for them as well. And we also have Learn to Swim and stroke development for adults.”

While Kellie manages this diverse program, she also coaches, keeping an eye out for emerging talent in the junior squads who she recommends to Anton, the emerging talent coach, for the competition teams.

“In Australia, it’s essential that everyone learns to swim, especially to be water-safe,” Kellie says. “But there are so many levels of swimming and benefits that come along the way, physical and mental health, fitness, individual accountability, teamwork, time management. No matter what age you come to swimming, you will have the skill for your whole life.

“Hopefully, everyone we teach at Sydney Uni Swimming will fall in love with the sport and lap it up for years.”