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Pools on the mend after years of neglect

(Published April 5, 1999)


Special to The Common Denominator

In a school district competing against the higher pay and relative safety of the suburbs, H.D. Woodson swim coach Bruce Bradford isn’t going anywhere.

The high school teacher has coached the Warriorsharks for 27 years; so long his pool-side office sprouts a jungle of alumni pictures, dangling goggles, and championship trophies. Most know him affectionately as Brother Bradford — a sign of respect for a person who looks more like a college athlete than a middle-aged man.

But funding shortages have sprung a leak in Bradford’s swimming program. Last year his pool sat empty while school officials used their limited resources to upgrade sprinkler systems. Students practiced swimming strokes by perching on chairs, and for most of this season Bradford didn’t field a team.

"I look at our program as being similar to the Titanic," said Bradford. "It should not sink, but you do have a captain willing to go down with the ship. And I bring my love and wares and skills to the program."

Bradford’s predicament characterizes a problem facing most D.C. public high school swim programs. Last year four of the five public high school pools remained empty, their repairs taking second place to fire code violations and roof repairs.

Students from Dunbar, H.D. Woodson, Roosevelt and Cardozo high schools who wanted to practice or compete had to crowd into the Wilson High pool.

According to D.C. Public Schools Athletics Director Allen E. Chin, the situation is often frustratingly problematic.

"A well-rounded student needs athletics," said Chin. "But what’s more important — a pool or a leaky roof?"

The Dunbar pool reopened last fall, followed early this year by H.D. Woodson’s pool, which opened after a 19-month effort to replace generator parts. Although not quite as simple, the repairs to the Roosevelt pool should be finished later in the spring.

The school’s principal, Learie Phillip, said the Roosevelt pool will be up and running by April, after maintenance workers replace chipped paint and broken lights and acid-scrub the floors. The pool was closed for three years — exceeded only by Cardozo’s ongoing five-year closure.

Even with the pools reopening, Bradford remains cautiously optimistic; the ironies felt by someone who has coached for so long are poignant.

Last year he was the first African-American ever to win the National High School Coach of the Year Award – even though his "pool" was a dry concrete pit.

To insure that his pool stays open for swimming, scuba diving, cardio-pulmonary resuscitation and first aid classes, Bradford embarks on an annual "Beg-a-Thon," asking H.D. Woodson alumni to help pay for diving instruction insurance and extra equipment the school won’t buy.

"I have the qualifications to give a kid a good aquatic resume when he gets out of school," said Bradford, stressing the benefits of vocational instruction. "But you have to start kids off early. The vast majority of my (graduated) students are doing well. They attribute it to teamwork and following instructions."

D.C. Department of Recreation and Parks spokesman Larry Brown wholeheartedly agreed. His department operates 77 recreation centers in the District, and over 25,000 kids visit the department’s before- and after-school programs on a daily basis.

"I think the closed pools send a message to the kids if they are closed over three months," said Brown. "I understand the situation, and I think the important thing to do is to maintain the pools. Young people really benefit from structured activities."

If D.C. City Council and Congress approve Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ proposed $42.1 million in additional school capital and operating funds, D.C. schools may see improvements to their swimming pools, play courts and field houses.

Until then Bradford will continue to roll up the sleeves on his nylon sports suit and continue raising money.

"I support the program," said Bradford. "It’s a survival issue, but still sports are a viable entity of life."

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator