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UNCP’s Swim School turns 30 under Smith’s guidance


At 30 years and counting, UNC Pembroke’s Swim School is going strong. With more than 500 participants, ages three to adult, this may be the biggest year ever.

NCP aquatics director and former wrestling coach P.J. Smith founded the program. He has built a loyal team of instructors like Rhonda Blank, assistant director. With the university’s support, Smith has made a huge impact at UNCP and in the community.

“We have grown every year,” Blank said. “I’m a physical education teacher, and I’ve been working in the aquatics program for 13 years, since I was a student at UNCP.”

There is a story behind Blank’s connection to the program. She was about to drop out of college when Smith offered her a job and some encouragement. Dr. Diane Jones, vice chancellor for Student Affairs, helped find Blank scholarship money, and she’s been working in the aquatics program ever since.

“I’m very dedicated to this program and to P.J., too,” Blank said. “I’ve seen a lot of kids grow up in this program, and P.J. has seen a lot more.”

Smith said teaching swimming lessons is the best summer job anywhere. He has 15 instructors working full and part time this summer. “Our instructors are all certified and very dedicated,” he said. “Helping kids overcome fear and build skills is a great job.”

July 21st was the last day of classes for Swim School. The kids showed off their skills for their parents and competed in races. “They all got certificates, a medal and a treat,” Blank said. “They really enjoy this. The kids come from all over, Whiteville, Laurinburg, Elizabethtown and Pembroke.”

There is a serious side to all this fun in the pool. Learning to swim can save a life. The Red Cross sponsors the program, and UNCP uses the Red Cross instruction manual. “It’s the best instruction program out there,” Smith said. “The support of the Robeson County United Way makes it possible.”

Blanks said she learned to swim in the Lumber River, which has claimed the lives of many children. The river was once named Drowning Creek. Her daughter, Harleigh, learned to swim at age six at UNCP and is now an instructor.

“This program is about community safety,” Blank said. “Water safety is very important. This program saves lives, so it’s a great thing for the university to share this facility like this.”

Smith, who has taught thousands of kids and adults to swim and trained dozens of lifeguards over 30 years, doesn’t plan to stop any time soon.

For more information about the Aquatic Program at UNCP, please call 910.521.6277 or email