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Swim coach shows there is more beneath the surface

Denise UnderwoodDenise Underwood greets you with a smile and firm handshake. She looks you in the eyes when speaking to you. She laughs easily. She has an air of confidence that comes from years of experience and a love of her job.  She is the Head Swim Coach for Chandler’s popular Recreation Swim Team Program.

Coach Underwood is as comfortable in the water as she is on land. Maybe more so. She has been part of Chandler Aquatics for 25 years, back when the City had just two public pools; Arrowhead and Folley. Today, there are six.

Underwood answered an ad for a swim coach the City published in the local paper. The year was 1991, shortly after moving to Arizona from Nebraska where she swam as a youngster. She participated in swim clubs and went onto swim in high school and college. She has helped build the swim team program into one of Chandler Aquatics’ most popular programs.

“When I first started, I was told we were lucky if 80 kids signed up and 60 of them stayed,” Underwood said. “I said ‘this needs to be bigger.’ Now we have about 650 kids in the program.”
 
The six-week program runs June through mid-July and is open to children and teens, ages five-and-a-half to 18 years. The program is designed to teach basic competitive swimming skills. It builds self-esteem and improve a child’s swim stroke. It’s also designed to have fun.

“I consider it my playtime,” said Underwood smiling. “Even though I’ve been doing it for 25 years and I know exactly what it is I’m doing, I still get butterflies. I love it!”
Underwood’s love of coaching translates into some imaginative ways to keep students engaged.

“One of my coaches owns a mermaid suit. In the morning before the younger kids get there, I have her in the pool out of view,” Underwood explained. “My back is towards the mermaid. Once she hears me talking, this tail suddenly appears behind me, then goes back under. The kids say ‘did you see that?,’ but I pretend to know nothing of what they’re talking about…then the tale comes up again!”

In addition to mermaids, pirates show up during children’s lessons at Arrowhead Pool where kids dive for treasure. On the Fourth of July the pool is adorned in red, white and blue and swimmers play a variety of games. It is fun for both students and coaches.
“If I have a staff that enjoys being there, it’s going to make it more fun,” Underwood said. “I use the things that are going to bring the kids back.”

The popularity of Chandler’s swim team program has a lot to do with Underwood’s coaching philosophy.

“I think being in a fun environment helps put kids at ease,” she said. “We do have structure. You have to have structure. More importantly, I try to put those kids at ease to be themselves and encourage them. They leave the program with more confidence than when they walked in.”

That confidence has led many of her students to go on to swim competitively in swim clubs, in high school and college. One of them, Ashley Chandler, a 2002 graduate of Chandler High School, wound up qualifying for the U. S. Olympic Trials, twice. Underwood tells a funny story about Ashley competing in Australia at a complex coincidentally named the Chandler Aquatic Centre.
“The commentators were saying, ‘Ashley Chandler from Chandler, Arizona; they must have named the town after her.’ It became this very comical thing at the time…Ashley Chandler who attended Chandler High School in Chandler, Arizona.”

Underwood said some of her former students now work in the Chandler Aquatics Program. She sees others at club meets and during the high school swim season. She gets invited to some of their weddings and is beginning to see some familiar looking faces in her pool.

“A couple of years ago a woman came up to me and asked how long I’ve been coaching,” Underwood said. “Turns out I was her swim coach when she was a child and she now has six children. That summer, I ended up having three of her kids on the team.”

For more information about Chandler’s Recreation Swim Team Program, visit chandleraz.gov/aquatics or call 480-782-2756.