Scott Barlow believes that he was born to swim. He began swimming competitively at age 6 and has spent the past 35 years teaching others how to propel themselves through the water and glide through life’s challenges.
After two years on the Eastern Michigan University swim team, Barlow took a summer coaching job prior to his senior year and immediately realized that it would be his life’s calling. At the end of that summer he accepted a year-round coaching position at Miami University in Ohio, from which he graduated and, most importantly, where he met his future wife, Holly McClain.
Contemplating a move to Florida, Barlow interviewed with the late Jack Nelson at the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale. Although in later years Nelson’s reputation would be tainted by charges of sexual molestation, at that point the career of the former Olympic swimmer and coach was on the upswing.
“I brazenly asked him for a job and started to rattle off my qualifications,” Barlow says, recalling that when Nelson asked if he was married, he responded that he had a girlfriend in Ohio. Nelson called her on the spot, wanting to make sure Barlow was telling the truth before offering him the job. Barlow worked with Nelson a few years before being recruited to develop the men’s team at Florida Atlantic University.
“I loved working with the college swimmers, but by the time I got them they were already conditioned and swimming their best. I missed coaching younger kids, where I could help them develop to their full potential,” says Barlow.
In 1993, he worked for a swim club in Delray, developing a team that grew from seven to 50 children. At the same time, Holly obtained a degree in English from FAU but couldn’t find a job in her field.
“Since I had been through so many undependable assistant coaches, and I knew Holly was an expert swimmer herself, I asked her to join me. We’ve been coaching together ever since,” says Barlow. “She has the patience and drive to develop the younger swimmers and I can take them to the next level. Honestly, she is the reason I am successful as a coach.”
One of the youngsters he met in Delray was a then 10-year-old Rhi Jeffrey, whom he eventually coached to a gold medal win at the 2004 Summer Olympics.
“We had an instant rapport and I welcomed Rhi to the team,” recalls Barlow. “Little did I know she would change my life.”
A gifted swimmer destined for greatness, Jeffrey won every event she entered, competing in her first Olympic trials at age 13.
“We spent about five hours a day swimming,” says Barlow, adding that even more time was spent working to solve the sorts of life challenges that she was reluctant to discuss with her mother. “She was a handful, but what a talent!”
Barlow was in Athens, looking on with happiness, as Jeffrey won the gold medal as a member of the U.S. women’s 4-x-200-meter freestyle relay team.
“I thought my heart would burst with pride as I watched her step onto the podium, accept the gold medal and stand proudly as our national anthem was played. It was as if my own daughter had just accomplished the greatest goal a swimmer could attain.”
Now the head coach of the Atlantis Aquatics swim team in New Hampshire, Jeffrey flew down last May to speak with competitors at a swim meet at the North County Pool in Sebastian. As Barlow had imparted to her, she encouraged them to take advantage of swimming as a life skill, not just a sport.
Those swimmers were members of the Treasure Coast Swim Team, founded by the Barlows in 2005 at the then newly built North County Aquatic Center, which now numbers roughly 180 swimmers of various ages and abilities.
Many of the younger ones are funded by the nonprofit organization Float Hope IRC, founded by John’s Island resident Jeff Powers to enable underprivileged children to participate in swim team lessons and activities.
“I met Scott Barlow in 2012 when he helped my son rehabilitate after a horrific car accident,” Powers explains. “Scott and I bonded through the ordeal and after I learned that most minority children do not know how to swim, and that Florida had more elementary children die from drowning than any other state, I thought I should do something about it.”
With support from other donors, the nonprofit partners with such youth organizations as the Boys & Girls Clubs of Indian River County and Gifford Youth Achievement Center to offer swim lessons to children ages 6 to 9.
“There is no better coach to teach them than Scott Barlow,” says Powers, adding that Barlow is the only certified USA Swimming coach in Indian River County. “The children need to fulfill attendance requirements to be funded, and the discipline and life skills they learn will help them get into college.”
Ethan McCloud is an ideal example. One of the first three children Powers funded, McCloud recently accepted a scholarship to swim at the University of Florida.
“Most of those kids are afraid of the water when they come to us, and within a few sessions we can’t get them out,” Barlow says with a laugh, relishing the transition from absolute beginner to competitive swimmer.
“There is nothing more rewarding than watching their confidence grow as their skill advances. There’s a special bond among swimmers, and being part of a swim club gives a child a sense of family. It’s really so much more than learning the strokes.”
While Barlow admits he is always on the lookout for the next diamond in the rough, his primary objective isn’t to discover future Olympic competitors.
“Our goal here is not just to teach a child how to swim, but to help them develop life skills that will move them through high school and open the door to college,” says Barlow.
“Being on the swim team is a bright hour of their day, and we honestly get as much out of watching them grow and flourish as they do from swimming. You just can’t put a monetary value on that pride and satisfaction. In this day and age, it gives you some value of hope.”
For more information, visit teamunify.com or floathopenow.org.