From USASwimming.org, by Mike Gustafson:
Elliot Ptasnik is a director at Imagine Swimming in New York City, and head age group coach of the Manhattan Makos swim team. A former swimmer at the University of Iowa, Elliot was recently nominated for 2011-2012 Metropolitan Age Group Coach of the Year. Yesterday, I talked with Elliot about last weekend’s 2012 Metro Diversity Swimming Clinic, which featured an appearance and teachings by Olympic gold medalist Anthony Ervin.
Let’s talk generally about the diversity clinic last weekend. I know this is the third year you’ve helped organize this diversity clinic. How many kids attended this year?
Last year we invited the NYC Parks and Recreation swimmers. This year, we invited USA registered swimmers from our Metro LSC. There was a huge turnout – 90 or 100 kids. It was the Tony Ervin show. Tony loves what we do here in NYC. Brooklyn is in his blood. With the London build up, seeing how focused he is, we said to ourselves, “We have to show this guy to our teenagers as well.” So this year, we invited some of our competitive swimmers who are trying to go to JO’s and Junior Nationals. Tony showed them a lot of freestyle tricks. He’s got some gorilla drills. Chicken arm drills. Technical knowledge he learned from Mike Bottom and Dave Durden and Teri McKeever. There were coaches stopping what they were doing and listening to him.
This was more a stroke clinic rather than a learn-to-swim clinic. It was more in-depth this year as far as what Anthony was explaining. It was great to have Anthony there, and it was great for the kids who swim 3 to 6 times a week. And it was all about being with Tony, and sharing knowledge. All sorts of people attended from all over the place. The clinic represented all four corners of the LSC and all four corners of all races and ethnicities. We had 90 or 100 kids doing dryland, and they were all in-sync, and everyone was from different places, different teams. It was fun to come together under the umbrella of the sport of swimming.
How did you become involved with this clinic? What was your role?
This was the third one we’ve done. I’ve done all three as a coach. It started when there was an announcement that Metro was going to do this a few years ago. I thought this is a great, positive thing to do. Anthony wasn’t swimming at the time, and being he was from Brooklyn, he was in for it. We had a few good people like Ray Willie (Chairman of Metro Diversity) and John Yearwood (Coach of the Diversity Clinic) and it started off small – 30 or 40 kids. Last year was big with the Parks and Rec. And this year we brought our faster swimmers.
As mentioned, Tony Ervin once again made a presence. He was so great last year when I attended, and the kids really responded to him. How was he this year?
He was great. He zeroes in. He communicates. He gave a 30 minute speech about his story. During his speech, you didn’t see kids yawning, or distracted. All the kids were engaged, from ages 6 to 16, in and out of the water. Anthony was the man. Fully focused. Fully engaged. Calling out people. Getting on the block and challenging swimmers. It was great. Lots of high fives. Lots of teams coming together.
What is it about Tony that makes kids respond?
Tony’s a cool dude. He taught at Imagine swimming. He coached at Oakland Undercurrent. He’s funny. He’s knowledgeable. He tells it straight. He’s proud of NYC. And he’s rock and roll. He wore black jeans and a black t-shirt. He had some Adidas shoes on. He’s “sleeved” with tattoos. You walk in and you’re like, “I’m going to listen to what this guy has to say.”
What were some of the specific things you were trying to teach the kids?
When Tony took over the freestyle part of the clinic, he was telling kids to imagine connecting a string from your left foot to your right hand, and stretching that out as much as possible. If you stand up and put your right hand up and left hand down, you want to stretch as far as you can from the fingertip of your right hand to the toes of your left foot. That’s a good way to stretch it out. I told my kids that at practice on Monday. They were like, “Whoa, what?” So, Tony had some invaluable freestyle technique advice for both swimmers and coaches.
You live and work here in NYC. There aren’t many USA Swimming teams (hardly any) in Brooklyn, though I know you guys teach lessons out here. Why do you think there isn’t more of a swim culture in this borough?
Well, you’re right. There are not a lot of clubs. There are a few smaller ones. Swimming is not promoted in the high schools as well as it could be. As far as gaining pools that are spacious and meet your needs, that’s always a challenge. In general, the emphasis is more on major sports in this major city. But if you do have the space and people committed, and you do have this large population of swimmers – no one has to fight over swimmers because there’s so many good ones – then it works out. Lea Neal. Michael Domagala. There are these really good swimmers coming up. Not just people who will swim in the northeast locally, but who will go to major colleges, which is great.
You live in Williamsburg where that mega outdoor aquatic complex is opening near McCarren Park. I used to live there and it seems like a phenomenal opportunity for swimming in the summertime. What do you think about it? Have you seen the plans?
I think it’s a good thing for people. We don’t have to do this as “competitive swimming” all the time. For people, to just have a nice water resource in a major populated area like Brooklyn, that’s going to be all smiles and high fives. That’s across all the boards – races, ethnicities, and ages in Brooklyn. There’s another huge pool on Pitt St. in the Lower East Side, which I believe has been around since the 1930s, an Olympic sized pool. I’ve gone in there, and it was packed. You can’t even put your arms down. It’s a jamming place to be. And that’s great. It’s good for us.
Kids in NYC have so many pressures these days, way more than I was exposed to in rural Michigan. What are some things you teach kids who come through your program?
With the Manhattan Makos, we have fun every day. We’ll go over 20 minutes of weird drills before we get in. Throw fist pumps. Crack jokes. That’s the first thing that needs to happen – having fun. Second, these kids went through lessons together from a young age. Families have been together since we started. Our first generation is going on its 10th year here. The 4 year olds who first joined the company are now the 14 year olds winning JOs. It increases every year. What I try to teach them is having fun. These kids grow up fast. They get a lot of seriousness in New York City. So, when they’re having fun, they’re pumped about it.
You’ve been instrumental starting the Manhattan Makos, and now in its 3rd year, you guys are doing really well. What’s been the key to success?
It’s a classic line, but fun and hard work. These kids get in the water, and now, a few are among the best in the country, like Dillon Hillis. And these kids are throwing it down in workouts, working hard. Tonight in an hour and 45 minutes, 22 kids went 5900 yards. No one complained. No one got out. These kids are all mostly under 15 years old, since we just started the team. And they’re committed. And as far as my strategy, I just want them to have fun. Work hard. And stay out of trouble.