by Leo Aquina | 14 November 2019
‘I found swimming laps boring" This may sound strange coming from former top swimmer Johan Kenkhuis. "But swimming training is something completely different," he says. The double Olympic medallist wants as many people as possible to experience that swimming is more than just swimming laps in a crowded public swimming pool. To this end, he started SwimGym in 2017, a special swimming pool in Amsterdam where he offers training to anyone who wants to learn how to swim better, from beginner to advanced. SwimGym became a success, even so much that there are now waiting lists. To serve more people, Kenkhuis did launch a digital platform: SwimGym.com.
When in 2006 Johan Kenkhuis stopped swimming at the highest level, he wanted to keep swimming regularly to stay fit.
"I got multi-visit passes for all kinds of swimming pools, but never used them. Every time, like many swimming enthusiasts, I was so frustrated that I got out of the water. The lifeguards are on a break during lap swim hours. The lanes are not marked, swimmers get in each other’s way and there is no one encouraging you from the edge. I didn't know that kind of lap swimming at all, I simply could and would not do it. I was used to focused training sessions, varied programs that had specific goals and trainers that stimulated me."
Training like Top Athletes
Moreover, Kenkhuis was frustrated that in 'dry sports' such as running and cycling there were all kinds of opportunities for recreational athletes to train in a more focused way. "These, too, are individual sports in which people like to do what they want, but in recent years the possibilities for being coached in these sports have grown enormously, thanks in part to all kinds of apps such as Strava, Tacx and Swift." With SwimGym, Kenkhuis offers recreational swimmers a similar program in a purposefully designed 50-meter two-lane pool at Amsterdam's Wibautstraat.
"I want swimming enthusiasts of all levels to experience what real swimming training is"
"What we do is a reflection of what we did as top athletes. Of course swimming training is always swimming back and forth, but we do a lot of technical work with all kinds of different exercises and materials such as snorkels and swimming slices. In addition, we focus on fitness with interval training. You will never swim thirty laps. Every training is different and there is always a goal. I want swimming enthusiasts of all levels to experience what real swimming training is. "
The concept caught on. "We have had a waiting list for almost a year. As far as membership capacity is concerned, the club is full and there is little turnover," says Kenkhuis, who is thinking about expanding: "We are talking to various project developers in other cities. Obviously, a swimming pool is a sizable long-term investment. City councils are also interested. A big chunk of public funding goes to public swimming pools, we can fend for ourselves.’ Kenkhuis does not know any opening dates yet. ‘But things are happening in four big cities, and I am hopeful that we can open up at least one new location in the next two years. "
People who cannot wait for the new locations, can start using the new digital version of SwimGym. "The app contains everything we do on location in Amsterdam but translated to a digital environment. We have developed our own methodology and we found, for instance on social media, that demand was high, also outside of Amsterdam and outside the Netherlands."
How do you translate physical training on location to a digital platform? Kenkhuis: "We asked ourselves, can you teach someone front crawl online, and we think we can. Actually, we do exactly the same online as at the physical pool. The difference is that you have a trainer with you, even while swimming. True, the digital trainer is not standing at the edge of the pool, but you can follow all kinds of specific training programs. For example, we have a basic ten-week breast crawl program. But we can also give personal advice online. Swimmers can film themselves and we analyse that clip with a team of coaches. We then send them a 15-minute video with personal points for attention, techniques and exercises in a customized program."
"Everyone wonders how they can keep the sport attractive for young people"
During the last Swimming World Cup in South Korea, the Dutch performed disapprovingly. Could SwimGym not only give a boost to recreational swimming but to Dutch top swimming as well? Kenkhuis: "I see a trend in that disappointing performance. The Dutch top has become narrower. This could be because since the nineties, around my generation, top sport has always been the main focus of attention. You could wonder whether the breadth and bottom have been neglected. It is typical of other traditional types of sports as well. The common question is how the sport can be kept attractive to young people."
Kenkhuis sees no direct role for SwimGym. "The ideal party for structuring Dutch top swimming would be the federation, of course. We have a good relationship with the federation and I should like to see how we could support them. Our ambitions are not the same. We would like to contribute to recreational swimming, and where possible, to swimming at the highest level. We don’t have to teach Femke Heemskerk how to swim, but next week she will be training with us for a couple of days as she will be in Amsterdam. "
"Use the strength of your sport. Don’t turn it into a circus act. What we do, is offer an experience.
Build on tradition
Both SwimGym and SwimGym.com are innovative concepts in swimming, but according to Kenkhuis, innovation must always be rooted in tradition. "You see novelties popping up in all kinds of sports and sometimes it just misses the mark. I prefer to look at what makes a sport attractive in the first place.. You need to build on the strength of your sport. Don’t turn it into a circus act. What we offer, is an experience: the pure enjoyment of swimming."
For more information: Swimgym.com