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How the Pandemic May Have Saved Broomall’s Lawrence Park Swim Club

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Avid outdoor swimmers in the dead of winter helped the Lawrence Park Swim Club stay in business during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On any given morning in February, you can see the steam rising from beneath the pool cover at Lawrence Park Swim Club, an outdoor operation tucked away in a private corner of Broomall. As recently as 2019, the 53-year-old facility was struggling, with membership numbers dipping to just 175 people. Then the pandemic hit, and indoor facilities around the region hermetically sealed their doors, suspending all organized team and club events.

swim club

Photo by Tessa Marie Images

Lawrence Park, however, remained open for “leisure” swims in the dead of winter, charging $8 a session to swimmers from the University of Pennsylvania, Springfield and Cardinal O’Hara high schools, and other institutions. “Every time it snowed, everyone was so eager to swim they volunteered to shovel the snow off the deck,” says club president Steve Szathmary.

Water temps in the six-lane, 25-meter pool run about 81 degrees—particularly in lanes one and six, where the heat filters in. At a club whose annual budget is “whatever it takes,” Szathmary admits that it was a gamble to install the $60,000 propane-generated system back October 2020. But it appears to have paid off. “This is an entertainment venue, a little mini-resort,” he says. “You can’t cut costs to get out of financial trouble. You have to spend more to stay alive. A lot of people say we wouldn’t have survived without this.”

The member-owned club pool burned 30,000 gallons of propane last year, and two warming tents were set up so swimmers could quickly dry off and layer up. Braver swimmers had snowball fights in their bathing suits. “It isn’t that bad,” says Xavier Tan, an eighth-grader at Welsh Valley Middle School.

A member of Lower Merion Aquatic Club, Tan swam outdoors last winter and is doing the same this year. “We had to hurry up in the tents because other groups were coming in,” he recalls. “We had to rush over to a tent, dry off, mask up and then leave—all in about five minutes.”

Alas, the tents didn’t hold up to all the windy snowstorms last year. This year, the club has wrapped and insulated the walls of an existing poolside pavilion, heating it with kerosene torpedo blasters. And there’s now heat in the locker rooms. Total cost: $8,000. “We really did it for the kids,” says Kathryn McKeone, Lawrence Park’s manager.

McKeone is also the head coach at Lower Merion Aquatic Club, overseeing some 215 competitive youth swimmers in addition to 85 adults at Lawrence Park. “It was the only place we could swim, and then club membership just grew because of publicity and word of mouth,” she says. “So many people didn’t even know we existed.”

Divided into five groups between the ages of 5 and 18, LMAC is a USA Swimming team that competes in the Suburban Aquatic League. The Lawrence Park summer team swims in the Delco Swimming and Diving League’s A Division. Recruited by friends, Declan Conway moved from Lansdowne YMCA to Lawrence Park. “For my first time outside, it’s definitely going to be cold,” says the seventh-grader at Haverford Middle School. “I’m definitely wearing a coat, a sweatshirt and sweatpants. I’m going to layer up.”

It’s not cheap to maintain an outdoor pool in the dead of winter. A family membership runs $620 from May 1 to Oct. 1 and another $100 for the extended winter season. But that only goes so far. The pool cover cost $56,000 alone. New poolside chairs and umbrellas for warmer days set the club back $26,000. There’s chlorine and electricity bills, and the price of propane has skyrocketed. It started at $1.03 per gallon in the fall prior to the first winter season, plateauing at $1.59 last year. This year, it’s been locked in at $1.93 a gallon. “All last year, we kept thinking, ‘At what point will we have to close the pool because of the cost of propane?’” Szathmary says.

With the exception of several snowstorm days, Lawrence Park never closed. “We still showed a profit last year,” says Szathmary, who buys and sells secondhand goods for a living and maintains a warehouse in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood.

Lawrence Park, Szathmary notes, needs to be a 12-month operation. “It’s hard for a swim club to make it on three,” he says.

That in mind, life member Liz Cassidy schedules social events year round, beginning with a “tropical plunge” on Jan. 1. There’s an easter egg hunt and swim in April, and a family day in June. Members make s’mores over the fire pit on Labor Day, when a lot of pools close. It’s amazing that not one pumpkin has gone for a dip during the Halloween carving event, and the club partners with the Special Olympics for a Turkey Day swim-off.

Becky Goldszal organizes the morning and evening adult masters swims. One of the regulars is Szathmary, a hard-headed Hungarian who didn’t start swimming for real until age 50. He’s since competed in two- and three-mile Steelman Open Water swims in Marsh Creek and Lake Nockamixon.

At the opposite age spectrum, Lawrence Park will complete a six-to eight-foot expansion of its baby pool, which is scheduled to open May 1. The $100,000 investment was made possible by last winter’s success and the corresponding boom in membership. “It will take on a bit of a theme-park look,” says McKeone, a Havertown lifer who swam at Suburban Swim Center in Newtown Square and Haverford High School before managing swim teams at Lafayette College.

Szathmary’s goal every year is to make improvements. “Take the baby pool—I estimate that will get us another 50 members,” he says. “We get them involved when they’re 2 years old. Then they join the swim teams, and the family remains members for 10 years.”

And that’s a lot of propane.

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