Youth swim club serving Edmonton's Ukrainian community fights for chance to compete

A swim club serving youth in Edmonton’s Ukrainian community, including newcomers to Canada, is fighting to become affiliated with the sport’s provincial governing body.

Swim Alberta denied club affiliation in 2019, saying city had enough swim clubs

Members of the Race-Pace Swim Club hold a Ukrainian flag at a practice at the Kinsmen Sports Centre on April 27. (Pylyp Zvonkov)

A swim club serving youth in Edmonton's Ukrainian community, including newcomers to Canada, is fighting to become affiliated with the sport's provincial governing body.

About 70 young athletes between the ages of five and 17 train multiple times per week with the non-profit Race-Pace Swim Club, but despite the club's name, they can't race at swim meets because their team is not affiliated with Swim Alberta.

Head coach Pylyp Zvonkov said the club also struggles to book pool time almost every month, waiting for cancellations since affiliated clubs are prioritized at city pools. 

Zvonkov said he has been fortunate to book a few lanes lately at Kinsmen Sports Centre and the Eastglen Leisure Centre, but scheduling is unpredictable, constraining the club's growth.

"We don't know if we're going to have swimming lanes for the next month," he told CBC News.

Denied 3 years ago

The club applied for affiliation and presented its case in person to the Swim Alberta board of directors in 2019 but received a letter saying the board had decided to deny its application "based on the fact that the sport of swimming is currently well serviced in the Edmonton/Sherwood Park area by existing club programs."

"We do not see this changing in the foreseeable future," continued the letter, which was signed by vice-president Baerach Anderson and then-executive director Cheryl Humphrey.

After Race-Pace requested a meeting with the Swim Alberta board to discuss the decision, the same officials wrote back, saying they did not believe a meeting was necessary and there was no avenue to appeal the decision, since the appeal policy was for members only.

The club has contacted Swimming Canada and the provincial government but both referred the group back to Swim Alberta.

Applying again

Race-Pace has been requesting meetings with Swim Alberta since February to discuss its application. Early last month, the club applied again for affiliation.

Zvonkov said Swim Alberta told the club its application would be included in the provincial organization's March board meeting agenda, and that Race-Pace would hear back in early April, but that did not happen.

In an email this week, Swim Alberta's executive director told the club its application would be reviewed at the next board meeting, on May 30.

"We just see that pattern doesn't go anywhere," Zvonkov said. 

Pylyp Zvonkov, head coach of the Race-Pace Swim Club, hopes Swim Alberta affiliates his club this year, allowing athletes to compete and have more regular access to pool time. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

In the 2019 letter denying accreditation, Swim Alberta had offered to help transfer Race-Pace swimmers to other clubs, but parents and athletes say they like their club's coaching and ties to their cultural communities.

Most, but not all, of the club's swimmers come from Ukrainian-Canadian families. Coaches help newcomers adjust to life in Canada.

Aisulu Abdykadyrova, a parent who has been helping the club advocate for Swim Alberta affiliation, said she chose the club for her son in 2019 because it was more affordable than others and it was welcoming to newcomer families like hers. 

Her 16-year-old son, Elsultan Shamratov, swims with the group three to four times per week. In lieu of official races, he and his teammates race each other in the pool every few weeks.

Shamratov is eager to enter a real race — "It's something I've always wanted to try," he said — and doesn't understand why Swim Alberta denied the club affiliation.

"What's the issue with having more clubs?" he asked. 

Elsultan Shamratov swims in the Kinsmen Sports Centre's pool. (Aisulu Abdykadyrova)

Cristina Alboreggia, 12, said she and her teammates deserve the opportunity to see how they stack up against other kids.

"It just feels really frustrating because I want to challenge myself and be better," she said. 

Existing clubs had capacity, Swim Alberta says

Swim Alberta's new club membership policy says it is continually looking to provide more opportunities for participation in competitive swimming and is open to affiliating with new clubs.

Shawn Holman, Swim Alberta's executive director, told CBC News the board did not affiliate the club in 2019 because existing clubs had the capacity to accommodate competitive swimmers.

"The addition of a new club would have significantly reduced the availability of pool time to all of our local competitive swim (Swim Alberta) athletes in our existing clubs," Holman said in an emailed statement.

He said the board will review the club's latest application and, should the local competitive swim landscape warrant the addition of a new club, Swim Alberta will welcome the opportunity to affiliate more.

Holman said the offer to help place athletes in existing swim clubs remains and it values the club's outreach with new Canadians.

He said Swim Alberta is looking to support newcomers from Ukraine by offering to cover fees at existing clubs, plus language support if needed.

Ariel Yablunovsky, 14, said he isn't interested in joining another club. Yablunovsky, who has a Ukrainian father and Russian mother, said he likes training with teammates who share his culture.

"We all come from the same kind of heritage and it feels at home here," he said.


Madeleine Cummings is a reporter with CBC Edmonton. She covers local news for CBC Edmonton's web, radio and TV platforms. You can reach her at madeleine.cummings@cbc.ca.