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Tapping a talent pool

Jim Ellis, the swim coach the movie `Pride' is based on, has plenty of success stories but hungers for even more.

March 30, 2007|Alison Lapp | Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA — The inner-city youth swimming program here could have inspired many movies, with its stories of children jumping into the pool as novices and climbing out with college scholarships and foundations for greater success.

But when Lionsgate decided to make a film about the program, it chose to focus on the coach and founder, Jim Ellis. "Pride," which opened last week, depicts Ellis' first year working for the Philadelphia Department of Recreation, when he turned a group of city kids with no formal training into an official swim team.

"I had to watch it three or four times before I realized it was really about me, not just my team," Ellis said. "That was heavy."

He might have known it was coming, though. Terrence Howard, now his Hollywood alter-ego, had spent about two months with him, observing the 5 a.m. and after-school practices and taking Ellis' coaching advice on his own strokes.

"I tried to find his spirit, his motivation, and look at some of the people he was impressed by -- Thurgood Marshall and Jim Brown -- and try and emulate some of them at the same time," said the actor, known for his Oscar-nominated performance in "Hustle & Flow."

Ellis' career began when his father pushed him off a boat at age 6 and told him to stay afloat. The sport came easily to him. While swimming competitively at Cheyney University, about 20 miles east of Philadelphia, he took a job as a water safety instructor at a city recreation center. It was a natural progression to starting a swim team, which just happened to be the city's first all-black squad.

More than 30 years later, he's at a new rec center and the team is more diverse and much more recognized. But he's the same coach.

"I consider myself an artist," he said. "Each kid is my sculpture."

To sculpt a swimmer, he uses a technique that former team members say is a bit hard-nosed.

"I just try to appeal to their better sense of judgment," said Ellis, 59. "It's tough love, but like eating vegetables, I try to make them see all this hard work is good for you."

His real life is less sensational than the movie may lead viewers to believe. He has never punched a racist cop, come close to drowning a drug lord or romanced a city councilwoman who held the fate of his rec center in her hands.

Instead, he has seen communities come together around pizza and pretzel sales to support the team, put his swimmers up in borrowed tents in his parents' basement in Pittsburgh for a meet there, and held back tears when his team received a standing ovation as two of his swimmers broke records and qualified for the Olympic trials in one night.

Like in the movie, however, in the early years his team was occasionally met with condescension.

"We'd get remarks like, 'The gym is down the hall,' or 'The football field is down the way,' " Ellis said. "We actually got more strength from that."

Success came quickly, then became the norm. A number of his swimmers have come close to making the U.S. Olympic team, and hundreds have earned college scholarships because of their talent in the pool.

Jason Webb, 32, credits his 20 years of swimming for Ellis with getting him into one of Philadelphia's top charter schools and winning him a full scholarship to the University of Virginia.

"The vision he had for me made me into the swimmer I was and the man I am," said the emergency room nurse. "The premise was swimming, but I'd be lying if I said there weren't any life lessons. He just told us to leave it all out there and have no regrets -- give all you can whether in the pool, the classroom or other parts of life."

Ellis is still looking ahead. He said he hoped the movie would inspire a wealthy philanthropist to build top-flight pools in the inner city, or at least spur more people to take up swimming. His biggest hopes are for his own team. "I still don't have a world record or an American record. I've never sent anyone to the Olympics," Ellis said. "Yeah, there's still a lot to do."

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