Mike Switalski ended up in Buffalo because he lost a bet.
The suburban Milwaukee native arrived in 1997 to take a job as a suburban swim club coach, shortly after a career at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater where he earned state and All-American honors in freestyle and distance swimming.
He started a project called Buffalo City Swim Racers on the side, teaching students in some of the poorest city neighborhoods how to swim for free – if they came to school and swim classes regularly, and kept up their grades.
During one of the lessons, he made a wager with his young charges at School 57: if they each got at least an 80 on an upcoming test, the 6-foot-6 Switalski would play basketball with them one day after school.
The kids won the bet. One of the teachers he met in the process won Switalski’s heart. Even though he would head to Chicago a short time later to take another swim coaching job, he returned to Buffalo about a year later and went on to marry her.
He and the former Kim Sarach, a Hamburg native who now teaches fifth grade at City Honors, will celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary next month. The couple live in North Buffalo and have two children, Nicholas, 13, and Alexandra, 12.
Swim Racers has ebbed and flowed with Switalski’s involvement, first when he took on the mantle after his initial arrival in Buffalo. He ran if for two years after he returned but it withered after he became swim coach at SUNY Buffalo State in 2001. It gathered steam again when the University at Buffalo Urban Studies Department asked him to revive the program in 2012 as part of a broader effort to breathe new life into the impoverished Perry Choice Neighborhood in the southern pocket of the Fruit Belt.
“Our overriding goal is we want kids to be safe around the water,” Switalski said. “We want them to know how to swim, how to float, recover, get to the side of a pool or shoreline.”
He underlined the need for the year-round, late afternoon program on Wednesday at its home base, the William Emslie Family YMCA, which sits along William Street, within eyeshot of the Liberty Building and much of downtown:
• An African-American child age 5 to 14 is more than three times as likely to drown as a white child the same age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
• There is a 90 percent chance that a child of an African-American mother who does not know how to swim won’t learn how to do so, either.
“That’s the biggest one that rings out to me,” Switalski said. “If there’s one sport a child should learn, it’s swimming. Swimming is the only sport where, if you know how to do it, it has the potential to save your life.”
Q. What is Buffalo City Swim Racers?
An urban initiative to provide formal, free swim lessons to low-income families that don’t have the discretionary funds to provide them to their children. We have four pillars to the program: a learn to swim program, education, nutrition and competitive opportunity. Since we provide the services free and they don’t have financial skin in the game, there’s academic skin in the game for the families. Once we accept a child in the program, during their first year they have to show progress toward an 80 GPA or better and 90 percent attendance in school. By the end of their second year, they have to meet that criteria.
Q. Shortly after the swim club resumed, you also were hired as a physical education teacher at McKinley High School. What is that job like?
I teach all the swim classes. I have about 100 kids come through a day with me and I have a different 100 on alternate days.
Q. How many students are participating and where are they coming from?
We finished 2014 with 132 kids. Essentially, they’re coming from all over the city. We limit our scope to people who either reside in the city or attend a school in the city of Buffalo. We prefer, but don’t limit it to, families that don’t have discretionary funds. There are very few families that have the ability to pay for everything. The fees for a typical swim club for a 13-, 14-year-old child can range from $1,000 to $2,000. … A thousand dollars to these families when the average household income is about $20,000 a year is 5 percent of their entire income for the year. They can’t afford that.
Enroll in or donate to Buffalo City Swim Racers by calling Mike Switalski at 359-4729, emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or visiting buffaloracers.org.