Tuesday, July 02 2019

Last year we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the International Aquatic Fitness Conference (IAFC).  Tasked by AEA with writing an article to commemorate the anniversary, my inquiring mind wondered, “What was aquatic fitness like back then?”  The only way to get the answer was to go to the source.  AEA founder, Ruth Sova, agreed to the interview and provided a fascinating glimpse into the state of the industry circa 1987 and before. 
Note:  This interview & article was first posted in the 2017 June/July edition of AKWA Magazine

To understand what aquatic fitness was like 30 years ago, it is important to first understand what it wasn’t.  Every emerging industry transitions through an era where there is a lack of governance and cohesion. The period leading up to the mid 1980’s was the Wild Wild West for aquatic fitness, or so says the lady sheriff who made it her responsibility to instill some law and order.  “Everyone was doing their own thing and there was no information or guidelines,” says Ruth Sova, AEA’s founder and the current president (and founder) of the Aquatic Therapy and Rehab Institute. 

 “There was no vertical stuff.”
According to Ruth, aqua classes were mostly held at community pools 30 years ago, but getting these organizations interested in classes was anything but easy. “I recall calling my rec center and saying I would like to offer an aquatic program.  They said we already have an aquatic program, but it wasn’t aqua fitness, it was just swimming.  It was all horizontal, there was no vertical stuff.”  According to Ruth, obtaining space was challenging, but beggars can’t be choosers.  “I remember squeezing in and using one lane of open family swim, and I also remember that those families didn’t like the music.”   It took a lot of persuasion to get into organizations, but once in, Ruth says classes grew like crazy.

Dancing in the water
Variety was non-existent in both land and water classes 30 years ago.  Dance fitness ruled the day and according to Ruth, aqua classes were either called Aqua Fit or Aqua Dance.  “We just did high impact aerobics, the same we were doing on land,” says Ruth.  Because the industry was in its infancy, equipment and equipment companies were also non-existent.  “If people used equipment, they used swimming equipment such as pull buoys and kickboards, and some people used Frisbees or plastic water jugs,” she recalls.

If Jane Fonda can do it on land…
Some people may not know this, but Ruth was a landlubber first.  Before she founded AEA and ATRI, she started an exercise company called the Fitness Firm in 1976.  Pre-IDEA, her company was truly one of the first fitness organizations to form.  And keep in mind, IDEA’s original name when it did form was the International Dance Exercise Association, in homage to the only group fitness format recognized during this era.   In the late 70’s, Ruth transformed the Fitness Firm into a training platform for Dance Fit instructors and began hiring independent contractors to teach and train instructors. “Dance Fit grew quickly and before I knew it we were in over 20 states and I had a lot of people working for the Fitness Firm,” says Ruth.  Eventually she added Men’s Fit, Kid’s Fit and Aqua Fit to the training platform.  “I noticed that the water classes were growing like crazy and we weren’t doing any special promotion for water, which led me to believe that this was the next place to go.

An industry is born.
By the mid 1980’s, in addition to managing the Fitness Firm, Ruth was traveling extensively for IDEA teaching and training high-impact dance fitness. “I traveled around the country for IDEA and I saw was that there was no clearinghouse of information for aquatics. I thought we needed a clearinghouse of information and that is why I started the Aquatic Exercise Association (AEA) as a non-profit organization.”  Ruth says she sold the Fitness Firm in 1986 and immediately launched operations for AEA.  “We started by putting out a newsletter that people could join.”   That newsletter is now the modern-day AKWA Magazine.  “I wanted something that would bring us together so that we could share ideas for what to when you have pregnant woman in class, or what to do when the pool temperature is 78 degrees.”  

The first aquatic exercise certification.
After those first AKWA Letters started circulating more than 30 years ago, interest in AEA grew quickly and so did membership.
“As soon as we started, people wanted to know more.  Keep in mind that email did not exist three decades ago.  All promotion was done by snail mail.  I was good at writing press releases, getting pictures out, and I also sent out articles for members to put in newspapers for promotional purposes.”  The thirst for knowledge, guidelines and the first threat of competition led AEA to create the industry’s first aquatic exercise certification.   The United States Water Fitness Association (USWFA) had formed shortly after AEA and the race for standard-bearer was on.  The first recorded dates of AEA certification appear in the fall of 1986. 

The first trainer
Ruth’s business partner and friend, Vicki Chossek, largely wrote the AEA certification.   According to Ruth, her and Vicki taught the first couple of certifications.  However, as interest quickly grew it became apparent they needed to assemble a training staff.  She recalls taking AEA to the Council for National Cooperation in Aquatics (CNCA) in 1987 where they had a booth and she taught sessions.  “A lot of swim people were there and they didn't like it at all but it got us a connection in the universities and this is where I connected with Terri Mitchell.”    Terri went on to become AEA’s first hired trainer.

After attending the CNCA conference, I invited Ruth to Austin, Texas to present the AEA certification the next spring and shortly after I became an AEA trainer. There was a huge demand for the AEA Training as there was no formal aquatic education out there. Our industry has really grown in the past 30 years. I truly am grateful to Ruth Sova for believing in me and giving me an opportunity to create an aquatic fitness and therapy career.__*
Terri Mitchell, Aquatic Specialist PTA

That conference 30 years ago
IAFC and AEA’s history of conferences was rooted in an event called America’s Fitness Conference, held in October of 1987 in Milwaukee, WI.   Organized by Ruth as one of AEA’s first big events, this conference would never have happened if not for revenge.   “I remember being angry with IDEA because I was the state rep and I was trying to have an IDEA conference here in Wisconsin.   They led me along and led me along for several months and then said NO - and I so thought…well, I’ll just start my own conference.”  According to Ruth, most of the classes offered at America’s Fitness Conference in 1987 were high impact, dance classes.  “ They were the same on land as in the pool – just a little slower in the pool,” she says.

Horizontal meets Vertical in 1987
One of Ruth’s favorite memories from the 1987 conference involves Mick and Sue Nelson, who were running a large swim organization at the time.  “Sue saw our flier for America’s Fitness Conference and she told Mick that she was going to register and check out this water fitness thing.”   At the conference, Mick and one of his sons peeked in to see what it was like.  Mick later told Sue, “There was a crazy woman dressed in multi-colored leggings and leotards jumping all over and the people in the pool were jumping all over too.”   And of course that crazy woman was Ruth.  While Mick and his son were thinking it was ridiculous, Ruth said Sue was in the classes and thinking it was great.  Mick and Sue were among the first within the swimming industry to get behind vertical exercise.  They eventually launched their careers at USA Swimming and Ruth says that they have continued to be supportive of AEA and ATRI while at USA Swimming. 

I remember feeling so out of my element but I was intrigued and hopeful that I would be able to take away enough knowledge to save our business. That weekend in 1987 gave me enough energy and hope to return and start an adult fitness program with 8 people. Within a year, we had over 400 in our fitness programs. The rest is history. Ruth has been a dear friend and mentor through the years.
Sue Nelson, USA Swimming

 The Winds of Change In 1987, dance fitness had a solid lock on both land and water fitness, but Ruth is proud to say she was one of the first to advocate for something different.  “I was not only a state rep for IDEA, but I was also on their advisory board which meant I was one of their video reviewers for instructors who wanted to teach for IDEA.”  She recalls watching a video submitted by an instructor who was doing calisthenics in the water, with lots of standing and grounded exercises.  “All of the other reviewers said no, but I said yes,” recounts Ruth.   IDEA rejected the instructor and so Ruth immediately hired her for her next conference.  Karen Westfall went on to become one of the biggest names in the aquatic fitness industry. 

The other advisory members assumed that since I was using Clorox bottles I knew nothing about aquatic exercise.  They were right.  I had never seen anyone else teach a class and I had never taken a class in the water. With my dance and land exercise experience, I just got in the water and moved.  I never thought of doing a cross-country ski or jumping jack.  Instead, I just felt for the resistance and moved through the water in a way that felt right to me.  Since her invitation to present 30 years ago, Ruth has been my mentor and dear friend and I am forever grateful to her for seeing a glimmer of hope and maybe a little talent in my first fledging attempt at aquatic exercise.
Karen Westfall, Waterworkout.com

Luckiest person in the world
According to Ruth, in 1976, there were no health clubs, with the exception of some Jack LaLanne Clubs in big cities.   “If you saw someone running down the street you would think they were in trouble,” says Ruth.  The terms “fitness” or “workout” were unheard of and instead people played tennis and other sports.  “Our lives kept us fit because we walked everywhere.”  That didn’t stop Ruth from starting a company called Dance Slimnastics, which she later changed to the name – Fitness Firm.  “I am the luckiest person in the world.  I happened to be at the very beginning of the fitness industry when it started.  The Fitness Firm grew like crazy.  And then I sold it 10 years later and started AEA.  And there I was at the beginning of another field.   And then I stepped into aquatic therapy, another brand new field.  So how many gifts have I been given?”

Bringing up Babies
When asked if she misses anything from that era of taming the Wild Wild West of aquatic fitness, Ruth could only think of personal things and people who have come and gone.  “I think of everyone in this industry as my babies and I support them all.”  Ruth reserves ‘extra special baby status’ for two people. “Angie and Julie are my baby’s babies and I love those two.  They helped me when I needed help.  When my family needed help.  They took over AEA in 1994 and they have been so strong.  They have been incredibly inventive by doing new things and involving other people. AEA’s dedication to research has tremendously moved the field forward. It is one thing to exercise in the water, but it is another thing to do the research and to do the hard work, putting together new programs and new ideas. Those two were always open to everything.  AEA was the original and leading aquatic fitness group in the world and they have made it even more.”

In May, AEA celebrates 31 years of conferences dating back to America’s Fitness Conference in 1987.   (In 1990, the name International Aquatic Fitness Conference- IAFC - was officially bestowed.)   Angie Proctor, AEA’s Executive Director, along with her business partner, Julie See, AEA’s Director of Education, prepare to lead their 25th IAFC.  And of course Ruth Sova will be there, along with all of her babies.   

Registration for IAFC 2018 just opened TODAY for AEA Members!   And so it begins...again!


Author: Mark Grevelding is the founder of Fitmotivation. He is also a training specialist and consultant with the Aquatic Exercise Association’s (AEA). Mark has been active in the fitness industry for 22 years as a group fitness instructor, personal trainer, international presenter and a continuing education provider for AEA, AFAA & ACE.