When a group called the Village People released “Y.M.C.A.” in 1978, the reaction was cataclysmic. If the brass riff to start the song and the pulsating disco beat didn’t get your blood up, just being among a berserk crowd shouting those four letters and spelling them with flailing arms likely would do so.
The song evokes strong reactions to this day, particularly when watching the Village People perform while dressed as a Native American, a cowboy, police officer, biker, soldier and construction worker. At first the head honchos at the YMCA objected to this dubious association, but the explosion in membership that resulted from the chart-busting hit silenced the anxiety.
Founded in London in 1844, the YMCA — which stands for Young Men’s Christian Association and most often is referred to simply as the Y — became popular in the U.S. and Europe. Most communities now sport a Y, and despite its initials you don’t have to be young, a man or even a Christian to be a member.
The YMCA of the Suncoast’s Clearwater Branch at 1005 S. Highland Ave. boasts more than 5,500 members. “We’re a melting pot of ages and ethnicities,” said Branch Executive Stephanie Zaragoza. “We offer lots of programs to meet the needs of the community.”
Frankly, I’d always envisioned the YMCA as a poor man’s swim and gym. That changed dramatically when my wife, Kelly, insisted we join the Y and hit the pool for an hour every day. At first I felt like the time and effort was a hassle, but after swimming there almost daily since Nov. 8, I realize that instead it’s the most important hour of my day. Already, Kelly and I are experiencing improved stamina, firmer muscle tone and better sleep.
A tour of the huge facility is impressive. Besides the 196,000-gallon, heated pool, Zaragoza shows us the full basketball court and gym; a wellness center filled with an enormous array of exercise equipment and weights; two group exercise rooms; a spin room with stationary bikes (try it in the dark while music plays); a supervised kids’ zone; handball/racquetball courts; a teen center; a chapel; and, out back, a quarter-mile walking/jogging track and soccer/volleyball fields.
Programs include Youth Development (infants to age 18), Healthy Living, Live Strong at the YMCA (for cancer survivors), Social Responsibility, Lose To Win (weight loss), Diabetes Prevention, yoga and tae kwon do classes, massage therapy, summer camps for kids and much more. At the pool you can swim on your own as Kelly and I do or partake in lessons, in-water exercise classes, and CPR and lifeguard training.
“If a qualified member wants to start up a class such as teaching a language or a hobby, we’re happy to provide the support for that, too,” added Zaragoza, who oversees a staff of seven full-time and 95 part-time employees. “We even had a couple in their 60s meet here, start working out together and then got married. The Y not only helps people physically but spiritually, too.”
I chatted with four handball players taking a break. “Handball is great competition and keeps us active,” said Dennis Kerrigan, who came to the U.S. in 1956 from Ireland. “The facilities here are kept in topnotch condition.” To drive home the benefits of frequent exercise, he nodded toward the eldest of his three companions, who at 95 appears to be in his late 60s.
Richard Erlanger, a snowbird from Connecticut who uses a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis, credits the Y for making it possible for him to enjoy the pool. “A portable lift at the pool functions as a crane,” he said. “A staff member helps raise and lower me into and out of the pool.”
The pool facilities include locker rooms for men, women and people with disabilities that have saunas, steam rooms, whirlpools, sinks and lockers. There’s even a machine to squeeze the water out of swimming attire, along with plastic containers to keep items dry in tote bags.
The monthly cost of membership varies, based on each person’s financial situation, so to get the full scoop, dial the Y at (727) 461-9622 or visit www.ymcasuncoast.org.
I only wish we’d started coming to the Y years ago — if so, we’d be in much better shape. But hey, better late than never.