Matt Croft started swimming competitively in grade five, but he’s been swimming in lakes, rivers and the Atlantic Ocean his whole life.
He is a prominent member of the University of New Brunswick Reds swim team, where he was part of the U Sports Academic All-Canadian team in 2021. Croft’s passion for the water has evolved into giving back to the Fredericton community. In doing so, he won the 2023 Atlantic University Sport Community Service Award.
To Croft, the water is a teacher.
“There’s always something new that you can focus on, something new that you can work on. You’re never going to be the perfect swimmer, but there’s stuff that I’m learning and improving on,” he said.
Since 2019, the UNB International Swim Program has run programs for newcomers and refugees to the area so they learn water safety techniques through the fundamentals of swimming. The program is held twice a year, six weeks at a time, at the Lady Beaverbrook Gymnasium on the UNB Fredericton campus.
The program is student-run and completely volunteer-based, with funding from the UNB Student Union and partners like the Lifesaving Society and the Fredericton Community Drowning Prevention Coalition.
Croft joined soon after the program was formed and is now executive co-president with fifth-year UNB student and swimmer Hannah Casey, whom Croft takes inspiration from.
“She’s always been a great inspiration to me; a constant force on her team through all of her years,” said Croft.
He admitted that COVID-19 slowed the program down, however, the slow roll is behind them and they upped the program number from 15 enrolments in its first year to 28 in both programs.
Croft understands he was fortunate to grow up in Canada where there’s an abundance of water everywhere and he could swim in the warm summer months with no hesitation, but for the newcomers, they might not have had the same upbringing.
When they arrive, Croft wants them to be welcomed to every aspect offered in Canada, like swimming in the refreshing, but sometimes unpredictable waters.
“It’s important to teach people these life skills so that if they ever encounter water unexpectedly, they are able to swim to safety,” said Croft.
It isn’t always easy for the newcomers as there’s often a language barrier, which Croft said is remedied by translators, but also because they’re afraid of the water.
“Often, that first experience for them is absolutely terrifying,” he said. “It’s a challenging skill to learn, but all of our participants are super motivated.”
Croft wants to share his love of the water with the people he trains and his teammates. He aspires to be a role model for the people around him.
During the team’s visit to Newfoundland and Labrador for the AUS Swimming Championships on Feb. 12 — in which UNB men’s came fourth — the AUS Swimming Awards were awarded and Croft was named the AUS Community Service Award recipient for his outstanding track record in academics, athletics and community service.
He was nominated for the prize after receiving the UNB Red and Black award for 2022, which recognizes a student athlete who goes above and beyond the call of duty for the team.
“It was a really proud moment for me to bring home that award to UNB, and I genuinely think it’s a testament to the work that we’re doing and the impact that it’s had and continuing to make on the community,” said Croft.
The UNB ISP aims to encourage other universities and pools across Canada to adopt the free program and inspire change in their communities. The next couple of years for the program will be a challenge, as there are more than 100 people on the waitlist.
But Croft said the challenge is welcomed.
“We have this incredible need in our community for programs like this to run and I’m so glad to be a part of running a program like this,” said Croft.