On most Sunday evenings at the Eden Prairie Community Center, you’ll find black curtains covering the windows of the recreational pool and a door attendant sitting outside the entrance. These are some of the accommodations for the Women-Only Swimming Program.
The current version of the program launched shortly after Labor Day in 2022, according to Nick Remmes, the City of Eden Prairie’s aquatics recreation supervisor. An earlier, more structured, women’s swimming program had been running in 2018 and 2019, “and then COVID kind of got in the way,” Remmes said.
“When we relaunched it, we took a lot of the community feedback into it and made it a less structured environment,” Remmes said.
Instead of requiring people to sign up for eight weeks of classes, “We changed it to a drop-in,” Remmes said. “There’s still the lesson component, but they can come on the days that works in their schedule.”
In addition, the event has an open swim component. “We have the water slide going and the play features turned on for an open swim for those that don’t need to learn how to swim or don’t have any interest in participating in the lesson part,” Remmes said.
Community feedback has played a role both in the design of the Women-Only Swimming program and in its existence at all, Remmes said.
“It really came from the community wanting it. Mainly the Somali community in Eden Prairie had been asking for a program like this and asking for an opportunity to swim in the privacy that’s in accordance with their religion. Also, partly, it’s come organically through conversations with people on the pool deck, from swim lesson parents and that kind of stuff.”
An all-female staff of lifeguards and swim instructors work the event, and the door attendant ensures that only women and girls enter the rec pool area. (Technically, boys up to age 7 are allowed, but the attendance so far has been only females of any age, Remmes said.)
The Women-Only Swim Lessons are offered to females age 11 and up. Since they also operate on a drop-in basis, “it’s very open-ended. Whatever the group wants to work on that’s there that day is the skillset the instructors focus on,” Remmes said. Since a lot of the participants have no swimming experience, the lessons tend to be focused on beginner swimming skills.
Eden Prairie resident Milgo Hared has been coming to the swim lessons for about two months. “I like to learn to swim,” she said, “but I cannot go swim with men,” due to her Islamic religion. Her goal is to be able to go swimming with her 10-year-old son.
Girija Kulasekaran, also an Eden Prairie resident, said on her first visit that she chose the Women-Only Swim Lessons because “I’m really scared of water” but “I want to learn along with my son.” Her 7-year-old is enrolled in swim lessons as well, and Kulasekaran said she decided, “I’m also going to do it; we’ll both do it together.”
Current participation in the Women-Only Swimming Program, Remmes said, is averaging about 12 to 15 people a week – including both children and adults – with a core group of five or six adults who regularly attend the swim lessons.
“One thing that we’ve kind of discovered is that it’s not necessarily just for those of the Somali community,” Remmes said. “There’s a lot of women and girls from all sorts of different backgrounds that are coming for all their own reasons, whether it be religious or not, to participate in the program.”
Anna Peters, an Eden Prairie resident who was babysitting her 11-year-old female cousin on a recent weekend, said they decided to attend because the event seemed “like a safe place to come with a child, versus being open to the public. It’s a judgment-free zone, and it’s less crowded.”
Angela Watkins, who brought her children to the event, said, “We just like open swimming, and it worked out as the easiest time.” The Eden Prairie resident noted, “Somehow, they came up with the idea to do it, so there must be an interest, a support of various cultures. I’m all for it: the community should support everyone.”
Informational flyers on the program have been translated into Somali “so that language isn’t a barrier for people to participate,” Remmes said. In addition to posting the flyers around the Community Center and on social media, city staff have also distributed them to apartment buildings with high densities of Somali residents.
The Community Center also offers swim hijabs for sale for $18 at the front desk for those who need one to avoid the safety hazards of loose clothing in a swimming environment. “Since it is an an all-female environment, some choose to go without the hijab as well,” Remmes said.
The Women-Only Swimming Program occurs two or three Sundays a month, year-round, from 5 to 7:50 p.m. (Staff training occurs during that timeframe one Sunday a month, and the event is not held on major holidays.)
The drop-in Women-Only Swim Lessons are priced at $15 per lesson, which includes the open swim fee. For those participating only in the open swim component, it is free to Community Center members; otherwise, regular open swim fees apply.
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