All Wet, and Happily—John Jay’s Muse of Natation

Adapted and expanded here is a story from “Study With the Best,” the 30-minute TV magazine, now in its third season, that highlights CUNY’s wide array of outstanding faculty, remarkable students and alumni, and major University academic initiatives. The lively, fast-paced series (CUNY-TV Channel 75, Sundays at 8) is aimed particularly at prospective CUNY students.

If you don’t believe mermaids exist, you should meet John Jay College professor of physical education and head women’s swimming coach Jane Katz. She has practically spent her life in the water—and more than four decades in the plunges of CUNY.

Jane Katz in her natural habitat, at the head of a swin class.
A City College alumna, Dr. Katz was a member of the U.S. synchronized swimming performance team in Tokyo in 1964 and helped pioneer its acceptance as a full-fledged Olympic competition event. The much-honored athlete is also the author of several books on swimming and fitness. At John Jay College of Criminal Justice she teaches police officers, fire fighters, the fearless, and the fearful. When she is not at the pool, she’s like, well, a fish out of water.

“Calamity Jane is kind of my nickname,” Katz says, “because I’m very klutzy on land. In the water I feel graceful and weightless—and that’s fun. I started swimming at the age of three.” She has fond memories of the Parks Department’s Hamilton Fish Pool on the Lower East Side, where a boy named Matthew Goldstein also used to swim. Her life in the swim of things has included competition at the Maccabiah Games in Israel at age 14; honors from FINA, the international amateur swimming federation, at the 2000 Olympic Games at Sydney; and five championships at the World Senior Games in 2001.

“I began learning synchronized swimming at City College from my coach, a new hire named Ella Szabo,” Katz recalls. As they educated each other – “She taught me synchro, I taught her English” – they swam in competitions far and wide. “I was able to make the synchronized swimming performance team that traveled throughout the world and performed in Tokyo during the 1964 Olympic games.”

Several years later, in 1979, Katz was injured in an auto accident caused by a drunk driver. “I had a Colles wrist fracture and several fractured ribs. I was lucky because, though I could literally not walk away, I was able to swim away.” Self-created water exercises and swimming helped her to recover much faster than she would have otherwise. With Katz’s recovery period causing a hiatus from competition, she began writing her first book, Swimming for Total Fitness: A Progressive Aerobic Program.

This classic aquatics book would not have appealed to Walt Whitman. He said he “always hugely enjoyed swimming”— just not aerobic swimming: “I possessed almost unlimited capacity for floating on my back…I was a first-rate aquatic loafer.” More to Whitman’s taste, surely, would be Katz’s most recent book, out last year, Aqua Fit. “It’s all about water Pilates and water yoga and tai chi and relaxation,” Katz says. Another of her books is Water Fitness During Your Pregnancy.

“Just getting in the water can create a profound change. Many of our swimmers come in with canes, with walkers, and some are able to leave without using them,” says Katz, whose Ed. D. from Columbia is in gerontology. She is also delighted to serve new CUNY students who have never had the chance to swim before. “In the last decade, especially at John Jay, we’ve been able to make great strides at the City University with programs, videos, books, and simply telling the story, particularly for the police and fire fighters who train here.”

No one is safe from a nudge by Katz to the poolside. “When very, very busy people—a college president or an executive— take a swim, it helps them solve the problems of the day. When they say, ‘I don’t have time to swim,’ I tell them, ‘Make the time! Make the priority of getting thee to water! You’ll feel better, you’ll think better, and you’ll have fun!”

Right out of City College, Katz taught from 1965 at Bronx Community College and from 1989 at John Jay. “As I go into my fortieth year of teaching at CUNY, I’ve been blessed to be able to share my love of swimming––to babble about bubbles and share the benefits of aquatic exercise and swimming.”

And Katz will not go gentle into the locker room. “I hope to be able to do this for many seasons to come…Swimming is for a lifetime, Katz says, adding, “See you poolside.”

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In the Pool: John Jay’s Muse of Natation