Immersed in an Important Lesson

John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Immersed in an Important Lesson

By Cathy Rainone

Ismael Valle, a sophomore at John Jay College of Criminal Justice hopes to become an FBI agent, but before he graduates from college he wants to learn to swim. He’s taking professor Jane Katz’s Beginners Swimming course and although it’s only his third class, he’s already feeling more comfortable in the water.

Jane Katz, in yellow cap, is central to CUNY swimming and water fitness instruction.

“Growing up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, I didn’t go to the beach much because the water is so dirty,” says Valle, 23, one of 32 students in the class. “With professor Katz, I feel like I’m going to learn to swim. She’s done exercises with us that made me feel like I’ve improved, and I’m learning breathing techniques that will make me a better swimmer.”

Katz, 68, a professor in the Department of Health and Physical Education at John Jay College, is a bit of a legend at CUNY.

She’s taught swimming and water fitness to thousands of faculty, staff and students, police and firefighters, triathletes, senior citizens and at-risk youth at the University for 50 years. And she still isn’t tired of it.

“The interaction is just priceless,” says Katz, who was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in March. “Just like it’s [the students’] first class, it’s my first class with them. It never gets old.”

Katz is a world-renowned aquatics competitor, instructor and coach. As a member of the 1964 U.S. Synchronized Swimming Performance Team in Tokyo, she helped pave the way for the acceptance of synchronized swimming as an Olympic event. And, as a Masters competitive, long-distance, synchronized and fin swimmer, she has won All-American and World Masters championships. She has published several books about water fitness and swimming, including, Swimming for Total Fitness and The W.E.T. Workout.

“I have trained many people and usually they are afraid of the water because someone dunked and scared them,” says Katz who holds a bachelor’s degree in physical education from City College, a master’s from New York University and a master’s and doctorate from Columbia University. “So we just go back in and we play volleyball and have fun and stretch and do exercise and they get very comfortable.”

Katz believes water has a therapeutic effect on people. It’s one of the reasons why she started  the Kids Aquatics Re-Entry (KARE) outreach program six years ago that teaches swimming and life lessons to troubled youth in the city’s Department of Juvenile Justice. Preteens and teenagers who participate in the program often don’t know how to swim and are afraid of the water, but she gets them in the pool.

“I teach by distraction,” says Katz, who was honored for her volunteer work with the 2008 New York Post Liberty Medal. “I ask, ‘Have you ever had a fight with somebody?’ Of course they did, so I say, ‘Are we going to do some boxing?’ We get in the water, we do a jab, hook, undercut. And that’s an example of using the skills that they know to do something new.”

Swimming for Katz is a way of life. She brings her bathing suit, cap and goggles everywhere she goes and when traveling, makes sure the hotel has a pool.

She swims every day, twice a day, but says even just 30 minutes of swimming or water exercise will do you good.

“Swimming is a total therapy,” says Katz. “When you’re in the water you weigh only one tenth of your body weight. Water is the great equalizer. I always say it’s democratic and democracy of water works for everybody.”

Katz has traveled to the Army’s Fort Benning in Georgia to demonstrate water-exercise techniques and has worked with the physically disabled at John Jay. For 10 years, she has taught a class of seniors from the Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center.

“You talk about your bereavement and losses, and when you get in the water it’s better,” says Katz. “It’s like a cloud lifts. I lost my husband three years ago so the water was a lifesaver for me.”

Born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Katz used to go with her dad, Leon Katz, a former City College professor, to a nearby pool at the Hamilton Fish Recreation Center, where he was a volunteer swim teacher.  By the time she was 2 years old she could swim, and at 7 began competing in 25-yard races. At 14, she qualified for her first Maccabiah Games in Israel, an international Jewish athletic event similar to the Olympics.

“I loved growing up on the Lower East Side because there were swimming pools there, because they were inexpensive or free and still are,” says Katz, who still swims with her dad, now 90, at least once a week. “It was a country club in the city.”

But in high school and in college there were no swim teams for girls and Katz couldn’t compete even though she was faster than her male peers. She was determined to change that. At 16 and a freshman at City College, Katz pioneered CCNY’s first-ever sport for women when in 1960 she founded a synchronized swimming performance team.

“Synchronized swimming fell into the dance and arts category and it was easier to start,” says Katz, who became the first female to be inducted into the CCNY Athletic Hall of Fame in 1976. “We all wore a nice bathing suit, we all loved to dance so that made sense and that’s why it was acceptable.”

The team became the forerunner of many other collegiate synchronized swim programs in the nation, long before Title IX ensured that women had the right to participate in all school activities, in 1972. Although women’s sports have come far since then, Katz says, “The gap between men’s and women’s sports hasn’t been closed yet. And I don’t know if it will in my lifetime. I would hope that it would. Men’s clubs still exist.”

For 25 years, Katz taught at Bronx Community College where she helped establish a comprehensive aquatics program, including swim programs for women. Under her leadership, BCC’s synchronized swimming club performed at multiple venues worldwide. In 1989, Katz came to John Jay to oversee and expand the new aquatics program. She opened John Jay’s pool and established a swimming club team in 1995, which transitioned to a varsity team in 2001.

A world Masters swimmer, Katz still competes on the international stage. She entered the 2007 Pan American Masters Maccabi Swim Championship in Argentina, where she won seven gold medals. In 2009, she won 13 Masters swimming medals at the Maccabiah Games in Israel.

Katz makes sure her twice-daily swims keep aiming for the prize. “If you’re still competing, you have to train,” says Katz. “It keeps you honest.”

In two years Katz will turn 70, and compete in the 70-79 age group. She’s ready.

“I’ll be the new kid on the block, the young punk in that group,” says Katz.