Four African American girls swimming
From left to right: UMES students Olivia Fuller, Norbely Gonzalez-Santiago, Pamela Anderson, and Mikaela Bieniemy enjoy the recently reopened pool at the William P. Hytche Athletic Center.

When Najaah Lawrence enrolled at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, one of the draws was the swimming pool housed in the William P. Hytche Athletic Center.

But when she arrived, the venue was inactive — much to her dismay — due to the COVID pandemic.

“The pool was what got me here because it was displayed on the UMES website and I used to compete in swimming,” the senior sports management major said. “So, when I found out it was closed, it was a downer for me.”

Now, Lawrence and the rest of the campus community can satisfy their yearning for floor-level cannonballs and taking laps again following the aquatics center’s recent reopening.

“I was the first person called,” she said. “I’ve sent emails about getting the pool opened for years. So, when I was asked if I wanted to work at the pool, I said ‘absolutely’ because I want to manage a pool as part of my career.”

Lawrence is working with Renee Clarke, the new director of recreation and aquatics to help operate the pool on weekdays. The spring pool sessions varied between multiple 90- to 120-minute blocks on weekdays based on lifeguard availability.

“Getting the pool up and running was one of the big priorities when I started here,” said Clarke, who also oversees additional activities such as intermural sports. “It took us a little less than three months to get it ready, and that’s something attributed to the hard work from Facilities, VP (Tara) Owens, and others, who made it all happen.”

In the first few days since the pool’s reopening, there was already a stronger-than-anticipated turnout. Nearly 50 students used the pool during a late afternoon session on April 29, with that number surpassed two days later with 107 students.

Sophomore Nev Schreiber, who had often heard stories of the pool from family members who attended UMES in the past, said she was “super excited” about the opportunity to use the facility.

“My enthusiasm about the pool being opened is a 10 out of 10,” she said. “I’m hoping that now we don’t have to drive 30 or 40 minutes just to learn how to swim, and that this helps to build community here at UMES.”

African American College Students Swimming in a Pool
The recently reopened pool at the William P. Hytche Athletic Center had more than 100 UMES students use the facility on May 1.

Presently, there are six lifeguards on staff, including Lawrence, with the hope of expanding the grouping and allowing for more swimming hours. Clarke, also a certified lifeguard, said there are plans to offer lifeguard certification courses in the future.

In addition to that, Clarke said water aerobics and swimming lessons should be available to students, staff, and faculty during the fall semester. Survey results showed swimming lessons were heavily requested.

As for this summer, Clarke said pool hours will be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on select days and are based on lifeguard availability.

For Lawrence, seeing the aquatic center reopen has rekindled her enthusiasm for swimming, something she hopes to parlay into a career using her degree.

“It means everything to me because some people forget that the pool is a hospitality business,” she said. “You have to make people feel good about coming somewhere like a restaurant or a store. So, it really warms my heart that people want to come and swim because swimming is my passion.”

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