Elizabeth Ray, coordinator of the Southern Arkansas University Aquatic Center in Magnolia, AR., said one of the most important aspects of her job is building relationships.

“We have people who use these facilities every single day to enhance their health and longevity,” she said. “We want them to feel comfortable, like they are home. It’s important we get to know them on a personal level because our mission is their wellness.”

The Aquatic Center, which is operated by the Department of Health, Kinesiology and Recreation, offers a variety of programs and services that promote healthy living. Aquatic Wellness, Aquatic Zumba, Aquacize and Scuba are taught during the week, and swimming hours are offered Monday-Saturday. SAU employees, students and retired employees can enjoy free membership. For more information on community memberships and hours of operation, visit https://web.saumag.edu/hkr/sau-aquatic-center/.

Ray said she wants everyone to know about the Center and its offerings.

“I still run into students who don’t even know we have a pool,” she said.

Southern Arkansas University

More than 1,000 people use the pool each month, Ray said, “and that is our goal, but we want more people using it. Students and faculty are not taking full advantage.”

While Ray hopes to reach more students, she said there are many SAU professors who come to the Center “before the doors open, every day, and that is inspirational to me.”

Vinicius Sportello, an international graduate student from Sao Paulo, Brazil, works as a graduate assistant at the Aquatic Center. He is an instructor aid and lifeguard.

“A high percentage of people don’t know how to swim,” he said. “Anyone who comes in who doesn’t know how, we are willing to teach them. It is crucial to be safe in the water. I’ve been swimming since I was 2 and I swam in college. My first experience with water was traumatic – I fell in the deep end of the pool at a family barbecue. From that day on, my mother had me in swimming lessons.”

Sportello said the first step is teaching people to overcome their fear. “They say, ‘I don’t know how to swim!’ Some people can’t put their head under water. We educate them, we work on their breathing, and we show them the pool is a safe environment.”

Ray said it is important to teach people that “water can be your best friend. We explain about the percentage of water in our physical bodies, that we can float, that we can do anything we want in the water – go up or down, left or right. It's difficult to actually go to the bottom.”

She said she enjoys seeing the progress people make as they learn to swim.

Southern Arkansas University

“People are concerned with what we think they look like, but that’s not even going through our minds,” she said. “We build a therapeutic alliance with them so they can get comfortable with just putting their face in the water and enjoying the activity (of swimming). In almost no time, they are swimming from one end of the pool to the other and are all smiles.”

She said people come to the Center despite having cancer, back issues, even kidney stones.

“Swimming keeps you active, independent of injury or disease. You can exercise without putting pressure on joints and it works your lower extremities. You can swim laps and do cardio or just walk the pool to keep pressure off your knees,” she said.

“If it weren’t for the pool, many people couldn’t do any other type of exercise,” Sportello said. “We have people who come from El Dorado and Shreveport and Murfreesboro, Ark., just to swim laps.”

When Ray heard that a class of learners was about to “go into the deep end,” she said, “that makes me so happy.”

Ray said swimming lessons “help people expand from their comfort zone and trust not only themselves but the water.”

Different people need different skills, and teaching the young is different from teaching the elderly. “We’ve found that in teaching children to swim, if you make it a game, they forget what they are doing and just have fun,” Sportello said. “If you are teaching adults, you have to be very clear and logical and show them what to do, you can’t just tell them.”

“We are here to meet everybody’s needs,” Ray said. “Everyone from babies to people in their 90s use the pool.”

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“Every sport on campus has used the facility,” Sportello said, “from team workouts to rehab and muscle relaxation. It can really help the body recover. Last year, the softball girls came every Wednesday, and football players came during their two-a-days.”

He said trainers can provide “an individualized workout program, if people will take advantage.”

There is “no excuse” for campus and community not to use the pool, Sportello said. “You can get a good workout in 15 minutes. The water and air are heated – when you get out of the pool, there’s not that big an impact. There are showers and lockers 10 steps away.”

Ray said swimming improves body, mind and soul. “If you don’t keep a healthy body, your mind cannot perform as it should,” she said. “We help people find a more balanced life.”