MASTER class welcomes swimmers of all levels



Erica Clark

“So, Jim, on your butterfly kick, splash your feet,” Erica Clark, the certified American Swim Coaching Association (A.S.C.A) coach, says to her student while making hand motions to demonstrate changes in the swimmer’s style. “Your chest is doing the right thing. You’re pressing your chest and neck back and your head back correctly, now start to get your feet.”

“On the back?” Jim Ryan, a Johnson State College graduate, (class of 1994), interrupts as Cara Hancy and another member of the class chatter about their swimming.

“On the back, yeah,” Clark replies and directs her students to the next drill. The three participants push off the wall on their backs and move along like a coiled snake springing into action. Their hands cup the water and propel them further, each stroke echoing through the pool with a cacophonous slap!

Welcome to a MASTER Swim class, which invites adults to the SHAPE pool every Thursday at 5:30 p.m. The goal is simple: to improve aquatic technique. Participation, however, has been minimal, and Clark thinks she knows why.

The reason for the lack of interest, according to Clark, is that most people think that the MASTER swim class is too vigorous for novices. But that is a misconception. MASTER means adolescents who are 18 or older. And Clark is willing to work with the beginner’s swim ability to improve upon and help them achieve their goals.

“I do love coaching swimming, especially with adults, because I find that adults respond differently than children, whether or not they have a background in swimming,” Clark said while glancing at her swimmers. “Many of them do not have the wherewithal or time to be like ‘let me put myself in the water,’ so I felt that having this [swim time] available is important – to the community, to those injured or need rehab; that is one of the reasons I got into massage therapy because you just can’t always get everyone into the water, nor on the table, so providing both allows me to help everyone.”

Clark started to swim competitively in the New York city metropolitan area at the age of seven and continued throughout her college career. (The competitions range from Junior Olympics to NCAA Division III qualifier). She has been coaching since she was 15 years old and taught swim lessons and later swim camps. Clark has worked on deck with Olympic coaches from the U.S, Canada, Brazil, England and Australia. She continues her passion for swimmers because she believes everyone can benefit from swimming, whether competitive or casual.

Typically, MASTER classes can be competitive, but Clark believes that a non-competitive model is better for the community because there is not that kind of pressure, and swimmers have varied goals.
Ryan, for example, said he felt tired of being a mediocre swimmer. And now, with his noticeable progress, he wants to become a good swimmer, stay in shape and do better, because it’s easier on the body.

Crucial to that improvement has been Clark’s disciplined approach to coaching. “She’ll walk by and make adjustments,” he said. “She makes me practice the strokes that [I] don’t like. It’s like your mom making you eat spinach.”

Even though this is not a competitive class, some participants choose to attend competitions, among them Rebecca Sylvester, who participated in the 2.5-mile Peaks to Portland Swim – a charity event in Maine.

“One of my first goals was to swim a mile in under forty-minutes,” Sylvester said as she dried herself. “And I couldn’t break the barrier, and then Erica gave me a couple of tips on how to swim straight, and that was all it took.”

Sylvester is hoping to repeat the event and do a little bit better, which is why she continues to return to the class.

Among the MASTER swimmers is Cara Hancy, NVU-Johnson’s athletic and recreation office assistant at SHAPE. Being a coach, she finds being coached is “a treat.”

“​I have been a registered US Masters swimmer for more than ten years, and I’m so excited to be offering a coached weekly workout here at the Johnson SHAPE pool,” she said. “I’m motivated by how a workout makes me feel. I feel strong after a good swim! Sometimes I have big goals, like a long open water event in the summer like I did last year, but most of the time, I just need some me-time. Having three kids, a job, coaching, and all the other responsibilities of life can really feel heavy and consume so much time. When I swim, it’s just about me. It’s my mental health self-care just as much as it’s my physical self-care too.”

Based on her experiences with Clark and those of other participants in the program, Hancy gives Clark high marks for effective coaching. “I have worked with lots of coaches over the last fifteen years in coaching swimming in Vermont. Everyone brings something different, their own style, and I have learned something from all of them,” she said. “I asked Erica to coach after watching her swim here at SHAPE and learned about her background in swimming. Erica has an amazing knowledge base around the techniques of all four competitive strokes, turns, and starts. She uses a progression in her coaching to support the athlete in their process of learning and improving. Erica uses a great balance of meeting the swimmer where they are in ability and technique while also not holding back and ensuring that as a participant, you will learn, improve, and work hard.”

MASTER Swim is available for staff and students free of charge, and residents outside of the NVU community walk-in hours are for $12 per class with access to SHAPE.