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Universal Design: A Conversation with U.S. Paralympic Swimming Coach Nathan Manley
As part of our ongoing study of universal design and the Mary Free Bed YMCA, we wanted to interview Nathan Manley, head coach of the US Paralympic Swimming Team. For the last two years, Nathan has brought a group of his athletes to the Mary Free Bed YMCA to compete in a regional swim meet. We sat down to talk with Nathan about his experience at the YMCA in hope of gaining further insights as we continue to improve our understanding of accessibility best practices. I hope you enjoy the conversation!
Michael Perry: Tell us about your background, connection to West Michigan, and how you became coach of the US team in Colorado Springs.
Nathan Manley: I have been coaching and teaching for the past 20 years in a variety of settings: high schools, club programs, parks and recreation and with U.S. Paralympic Swimming. Twelve of those years I spent in Grand Rapids as head coach of Rapids Area YMCA Swimmers (RAYS). Elizabeth Stone, who is a single leg amputee, joined that program in 2006 and was my first introduction to para swimming. Elizabeth went on to win a silver medal in Beijing and two bronze medals in London and through those years I was able to get involved with U.S. Paralympic Swimming, assisting with camps and working on the staffs of several domestic and international events. After Elizabeth retired, I continued to stay involved and in 2016 when the resident program was looking for a new coach, I was asked to fill that slot.
Michael Perry: For two consecutive years, you’ve decided to bring some of the United States Paralympic swimmers to the Mary Free Bed YMCA for a training session. Why?
Nathan Manley: Our primary reason for visiting the area is to use the Great Lakes Tropical Challenge, a competition the RAYS run annually, as a platform to expose people to para swimming and encourage discussion among USA swimming clubs and local swim committees about how to better serve swimmers who have impairments. The Mary Free Bed YMCA staff and RAYS have welcomed us to use the facility to get in some training while we are on the road.
Michael Perry: What have you heard from the athletes about the Mary Free Bed YMCA?
Nathan Manley: Our athletes were all impressed that the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids and Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital decided the project was worthy of pursuing. They would love to have found those kinds of accommodations growing up or when they acquired their impairment. I think they also feel that their experiences, especially as athletes, gives them a unique perspective which gyms and organizations could take advantage of when designing.
Michael Perry: What are some of your favorite aspects of the Mary Free Bed YMCA?
Nathan Manley: I look at the facility with different eyes than the athletes, but I do appreciate many of the universal design features. It’s unique to find a facility that does not have stairs, for example. The low-profile gutters in the pool allow for easier in and out by those who may have some mobility challenges.
Michael Perry: Quite often we hear that competitive swimming is a tough sport requiring a high level of both mental and physical preparation. What are your thoughts on this? How do you keep swimmers motivated?
Nathan Manley: You must motivate people to do things they don’t want to do, so maybe the trick is as simple as making sure you’re asking them to do things they want to do, but I appreciate the point of the question and I think there are a couple things you can try to do. One is to make sure that the process is about more than just winning. No matter what level of the sport you play at, a coach needs to develop aspects of the person that will outlive their athletic career: character, life skills, body/healthy awareness among others. Another is to make sure that you encourage (and allow) the athlete to own the experience. If the athlete wants to be challenged because they see that as a path to their goal, then they manage motivation. Sometimes that is more about managing ourselves as coaches and parents than managing the athlete. Third is that you have to try to make sure you’re always better at what you do than the athletes are. Coaches have to learn and grow at least as fast as the athlete.
Michael Perry: How does the MFB YMCA aquatic environment and locker rooms compare to what you have at the Olympic Training Center (OTC)?
Nathan Manley: The OTC facilities are considerably older than the YMCA and U.S. Paralympics was only in full swing at the start of the century so the need to serve athletes with impairments just wasn’t there when the original plans were drawn up. So not only is the Mary Free Bed YMCA newer construction, but the locker rooms and pool were designed with those special needs in mind. Currently the OTC is much like any other facility you walk in to.
Michael Perry: We’ve been on this journey of creating environments that are universally designed and promote best practices in accessibility. Do you think an environment that is highly sensitive to eliminating barriers makes a difference when considering performance of an athlete or their social participation in everyday activities?
Nathan Manley: Without a doubt and it’s probably even more important to the new athlete than the ones I typically work with because a lot of the barriers exist at the starting point, both physical and mental. It’s hard enough to expose yourself to the world in the pool, but then add in the impairment and if they can get past those barriers but find it’s difficult to navigate the facility, they’ll either find somewhere else to go or, worst case, they give up on the idea.
The athletes I work with have already overcome that initial inertia and, if they had to, they would crawl over, through or around whatever else to train. That said, anything we can do eliminate extra effort in their daily life allows them to focus their energy on preparing to compete.
Michael Perry: From your coaching perspective, what are some of the barriers that the athletes encounter on a daily basis or when visiting other venues?
Nathan Manley: The highest frequency of barriers are often immediately around the pool, including the locker room. Some that come to mind include:
Locker room layout or entry points that are not wheelchair friendly. You see these issues largely because years ago builders were trying to deal with water but a barrier that ambulatory individuals would just step over is impassable for a wheel chair. Other spaces can be narrow or require passing through shower areas – not fun in your wheelchair, with crutches or when you can’t see.
Gutter design can make it difficult to get in and out of a pool. Anything beyond a couple inch difference between the deck and water surface without a step or cut out can make it difficult for an athlete with a more severe impairment.
Access to starting blocks. Many pools have had to build ramps or extensions for their bulkheads to accommodate wheelchairs. While not impassible for more ambulatory athletes, steps, narrow paths and other obstacles make a simple task more complicated.
Michael Perry: Key outcomes of Universal Design are to promote independence, maintain the dignity and respect of individuals, and allow everyone to socially participate without segregation of abilities. To achieve these outcomes, what advice would you give to an architect?
Nathan Manley: Talk to the users because they’ve encountered it all. I would also agree that its critical to have an experienced individual such as yourself leading the discussion and asking deeper questions that help users think differently and discover things they didn’t know.
Michael Perry: You have traveled across the globe for the highest level of swimming competitions. I’m curious, from an accessibility perspective, how does the MFBY hold up to these international facilities?
Nathan Manley: Exclusively from an accessibility perspective, I’d say it’s right there with anything we encounter. The power of the Mary Free Bed YMCA is that you have applied Universal Design from a holistic perspective.
Michael Perry: Your initial book, The Swimmers Edge focused on an every-day guide to excellence. Are you planning on writing another book? If so, can you share the topic?
Nathan Manley: I’d like to find the time, but currently I’ve been doing more to help organizations like the American Swimming Coaches Association amend some of their curriculum to address unique needs of athletes with impairments. I think if I start another project it will be on a topic that reaches a slightly wider audience.