Mary Kilpatrick Jackson and Dan Vawter had other careers before opening AquaChamps, but swimming was always in their blood. Mary decided to blend her advertising and teaching degrees with her swimming background to start a school. At the time, Dan was working for her family (and involved in political action), but knew he wanted to work with her. After begging Mary for a full-time position, she finally looked at him and said, “Let’s do it. We’ll figure it out”.
They’ve been a great business match since, and for years have taught swimming classes all over Fort Lauderdale. They have now found a permanent home in Oakland Park with the building of their brand new AquaChamps Swim School facility.
The new facility is fresh. It has a spacious lobby and reception area with a meeting space for classroom-like demonstrations. Down a corridor are many changing rooms, offices and several bathrooms, as well as a common space with cubbies to store belongings.
In the main viewing area are huge one-way windows that over look their two pools – a perfect place for parents to relax in the air conditioning without distracting instruction. Don’t prefer to be a spectator? That’s alright too, because they encourage the whole family to participate. That’s AquaChamp’s style.
“It’s personal,” says Dan. “It’s not just getting in and swimming. We work with the entire family, not just the child because we like parents to know how to interact with their children in the water. Parenting is a verb and we want AquaChamps to be a part of that parenting verb. It requires action… we engage everyone around the teaching because it takes a village”.
Mary continues, “It’s so rewarding when you take a child on Monday who’s terrified and they’re crying when they have to get in the pool, and then on Friday they’re crying when you have to take them out. Not only is it a lifesaving skill, but it brings joy to the parents.”
Opening a swim school of this caliber does have its challenges. Most people would think that it’s simply installing pools and swimming with kids, but it’s very much a business.
Some of the previous challenges included modifying business hours to suit zoning, neighbors, and parking. With this new location, despite some drainage issues and other minor things, they’ve found that funding was one of the biggest challenges when starting the Oakland Park project.
“It’s a business that not many people take seriously, which we really found out when looking for funding on this project. It’s not a yoga studio or retail space. It’s a very specific space we need, and because it’s not a product or unit banks struggled to understand it“, says Dan. “We had to be very persistent”.
Fortunately, a bank did believe in their vision and construction soon began and with the grant awarded to them by the City of Oakland Park, the building will no doubt serve as a beautiful oasis in a usually industrial area.
Size and space aren’t the only differences between the old facility and the new one in Oakland Park. There are plenty more parking spaces here, which at times is a challenge at the current location. Their operational hours will be longer, a benefit of being in their current zoning. This has opened up the opportunity for them to offer even more programs to the public. AquaChamps will still offer the Baby and Me class created by Mary, as well as the school’s current programs being offered, which were inspired by the teachings of the late Olympics coach, Jack Nelson.
They will also have water aerobics, aquatic therapy programs and even day camps for kids, where indoor time meets pool time. They will even host birthday parties and afford memberships to those who wish to enjoy the facility for open pool times!
Also offered are two very special programs: AquaStars and Aquatism. AquaStars helps children with awkward, social or behavioral disabilities overcome swimming challenges to eventually get into the main programs. Aquatism is a program they have taught all over the United States, and it’s specially tailored to teach children with autism how to swim. Dan explains,
“The inspiration has evolved over our own growth. It’s still rewarding to do all of our drowning prevention and stuff, but now we have the opportunity to present even more aquatic opportunities to a community we never had an opportunity to do before. For me, I was always inspired by Mary’s family. Coach Nelson left a legacy and now it’s our opportunity to leave a legacy back”.
At the moment, Mary and Dan are adding the finishing touches and they plan on a grand opening sometime in April.
Stay tuned to Living In Oakland Park for more information about AquaChamps Grand Opening in Oakland Park!
Steven Mayer is a local Floridian who grew up in the South Corals area of Oakland Park most of his life. He attended Rickards Middle, Northeast High and earned his B.A. in English from FAU. He’s done some writing and editorial work for a south Florida lifestyle magazine and is proud to have been a partner with Starbucks for a total of 18 years.
After testing out a couple U.S. cities in his twenties, Steven realized that nothing beats home, and eventually settled back down in the Downtown Oakland Park area with his partner Douglas (another Oakland Park native), their three Pekinese dogs and two beautiful cats.
Steven enjoys anything Disney, vegan cooking, going for runs, attending local festivals, traveling, and game nights with friends and family.