Last year's closure of two YWCA fitness centers sunk the Otters, a competitive youth swimming program in Minneapolis, which no longer had a pool to call home.

But when that opportunity dried up, parents of the kids on the disbanded swim team rallied to give life to the Minneapolis Lake Monsters, the newest and maybe only swim team available for kids ages 7-12 entirely within in the city.

"It's really fun," said Charlie Elliott, 11, who swims mostly backstroke and freestyle. "I love that there's some people I know from the Otters. That's nice."

A majority of kids' swim teams are in the suburbs. Minneapolis only has a few high school swim teams and almost no options for competitive swimming before high school, according to Brian Elliott, Minneapolis Lake Monsters swim team treasure and Charlie's dad. Eventually, the Lake Monsters plan to have swimmers up to age 14.

Elliott was not the only parent looking for a local swim team on short notice when the YWCA closed its two pools. The parents of around 200 other kids from the Otters had to either find a new team or drop swimming.

After the Otters disbanded, around 10% of kids joined the Lake Monsters, 35% joined a swim team outside of Minneapolis and 45% stopped swimming competitively, according to former Otter's coach and Lake Monsters volunteer David Cameron.

"I went individually through where every swimmer is now and the largest choice for people among all the different teams, just shy of a majority, 'Stop swimming entirely,'" Cameron said. "Even though we tried so hard, we still lost so many from the sport."

Elliott and Cameron worked together to create a new swim team just seven weeks after the old team broke up. Elliott set up the team as a nonprofit and assembled a management and coaching staff.

Cameron worked with Minneapolis Community Education Aquatics Director Silvia Zavaleta-Ihme to find a location and time for the new team to practice three days a week. For now, Minneapolis Lake Monsters practice at Southwest High School, but Elliott hopes to expand to another school swim facility in the fall.

Elliott said offering competitive swimming in Minneapolis is vital to growing the sport and teaching kids how to swim in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

"Swimming was always the one thing that was not optional for my children to learn," Elliott said. "We live in Minneapolis, the City of Lakes. I wanted to know that my kids go and swim in a lake or swim in a pool and not have to worry."

Swimming toward more opportunity

Access to public swimming pools is vital to giving kids swimming opportunities after their first swim lessons, Elliot said. On the North Side, a new five-lane, 25-yard swimming pool opening at the V3 Sports center this spring will help, but access is still uneven.

"Between the ages of 7 and 10, as they finish off their swimming lessons, there's really nothing that they can continue with if there is no club to join until they get to high school," Elliott said, noting some high schools don't have a team.

Cameron said the community and friendships kids get out of competitive swimming is why the sport is needed in the city.

"When kids talk about what they love in swimming, they're most often talking about the idle time between sets and on deck or the workouts they did with another person," Cameron said. "Even though you swim in race individually in a very objective way against the clock, it still feels like a community and team sport because of the way everybody interacts around the pool."

Cameron added that encouraging swimming in the city can help alleviate racial disparities in drowning. Rates of accidental drowning are around three times higher among Black and Indigenous kids compared to white kids, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More competent swimmers will also be a key to filling lifeguard shortages in the wake of the pandemic, according to Zavaleta-Ihme.

Vincent Francoual, a parent whose daughter was on the Otters and later joined the Lake Monsters, said when he was searching for swim teams, it was a struggle because there were not any options available in Minneapolis.

"It's very interesting to see like in Minneapolis there were no swim clubs around in the city," Francoual said. "It was a bit of a challenge. We weren't sure what to do and we're glad that the Lake Monsters came up."