Catholic coaches form a competitive swim program for underserved youth in Salt Lake

Friday, Aug. 02, 2013
Catholic coaches form a competitive swim program for underserved youth in Salt Lake + Enlarge
The girls bond as teammates when they don their swim caps which read 'Make a Difference.' Courtesy photo/Jill Dahle

SALT LAKE CITY — Matt Finnigan and his wife, Mary Chris Finnigan, are coaching swimming at Race Swami, the outreach program they established on the west side of Salt Lake City so underserved kids could compete in meets from Ogden to Provo.

Matt Finnigan is the former Judge Memorial Catholic High School swim coach and director of marketing. Mary Chris Finnigan was the Judge Memorial director of counseling and girls’ basketball coach.

The couple based Race Swami on Matt Finnigan’s early days of swimming. Finnigan swam for the Santa Clara Swim Club, the Los Altos Aquatic Club and at Florida State University.

"My coach, Kevin Perry, used to call us Swamies; he worked with kids from diverse backgrounds and all socio-economic situations, and I thought that was awesome," said Finnigan.

Two years ago, the Finnigans came to a point in their lives where they wanted to give back and researched Salt Lake City to discover areas in which they could make a difference, Matt Finnigan said.

They settled on the Rose Park and Glendale areas, starting with a dozen kids in the program. They now have more than 70.

About 75 percent of the children age 6 to 18 are Latino, with the other youth coming from Polynesia and Nepal. In school, they qualify for free or reduced lunch and without Race Swami their families couldn’t afford for them to swim on a competitive level.

"More than 60 percent of our kids receive some sort of scholarship," said Matt Finnigan. "The money we get from foundations helps us pay for these kids to swim. We do a lot of swimming, but we also do character education."

One day the leaders asked what Race Swami means to the kids and what their goals are.

"One girl told us ‘Race Swami means the world to me; this is where I feel like I have real friends and feel empowered. I’m getting bullied at school and it’s frustrating, but I come here and I feel welcome, loved and cared for,’" said Matt Finnigan. "That’s when I felt like we are at a place where these kids can feel safe, supported and cared for."

Mary Chris Finnigan works full-time as a learning specialist at the University of Utah academic athletic department and assists at Race Swami in the evenings.

"I share the administrative responsibilities with Leslie Motley," she said. "I show up tired from a long day, but I leave there more energized because of the community. Seeing a smile on a kid’s face after he or she has finished a race makes it all worth it, and seeing how proud the parents are of the kids is great to see."

The youth practice swimming at the Northwest Recreation Center in Rose Park and the Steiner West Pool at the Sorenson Multi-Cultural Center in Glendale. Race Swami is funded by grants from local foundations and donations.

The youth give back by volunteering at places like the Road Home and Catholic Community Services. For the last two years they have put together gifts for families staying at the Road Home. They also have volunteered to help out at Easter egg hunts, triathlons, and mentored students from the Guadalupe School in math, reading, or hosting swimming clinics.

One youth likes the program so well that he used his birthday money to pay his Race Swami fees so he could continue swimming, said Matt Finnigan.

"We feel like we are on the right track and our journey is worth it; we feel confident that someday these kids will make a difference in their own communities."

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