If you build it, they will swim Aqua Essence’s drive to build its own pool floated above COVID restrictions and found its home in a strip mall

Reannah Hocken brings essentials to a Kenaston strip mall — her purse, her son and his swimsuit.

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Reannah Hocken brings essentials to a Kenaston strip mall — her purse, her son and his swimsuit.

James, 2, has yet to take swimming lessons at a traditional pool.

First came the Zoom bathtub sessions: Hocken would float her son on his belly, sitting in the tub with a computer propped on the toilet seat. She’d listen as an Aqua Essence instructor gave advice.

Now, pandemic-era restrictions have lifted, and Aqua Essence has opened its own pool — in a former Addition Elle in SmartCentres Winnipeg Southwest.

“It’s wild. I couldn’t really believe it,” Hocken said. “Now that it’s here, it’s working… and it’s great.”

The roughly 8,000 sq. ft. space was void of clothing aisles and cashiers Friday. Instead, Hocken sat in a viewing area, watching as James splashed in an L-shaped, stainless steel pool from the Czech Republic.

“I just love how brave he is,” Hocken said, smiling. “He’s becoming so much more comfortable in the water.”

“Now that it’s here, it’s working… and it’s great.”–Reannah Hocken

Aqua Essence is sandwiched between two vacant storefronts in the strip mall. On Friday, there were seven vacancies in the vicinity.

Some tenants are retailers — HomeSense, Reitmans — but an increasing number are not. Across the parking lot, Ignite Cycle and Strength offers fitness classes. There’s a barber shop, a sauna studio and a pharmacy.

It wasn’t easy converting a former store into a swimming hub, according to Rishona Hyman, Aqua Essence’s owner.

“It took a long time to get a landlord and a bank on the same page,” she said. “Winnipeg, in many ways, is really far behind.”

Hyman, 48, has been instructing swimming for 30 years. It was a part-time job and a passion, she said.

She worked four jobs to get by as a graduate student.

“Tax season came around and I owed money,” Hyman said. “My dad was very upset.”

The family decided if Hyman were to continue teaching swimming lessons, she’d have to do it herself.

So, in the fall of 2002, she began. Past students — 35 of them — booked to meet Hyman in city-owned pools.

By springtime, she had 70 students and an employee, she said.

Hyman ran Aqua Essence part time for six years, balancing it with a job as a mental health worker.

She and other instructors would flit to pools at city facilities, in Manitobans’ backyards and at Camp Massad near Winnipeg Beach. Aqua Essence became Hyman’s full-time job after her son’s birth in 2008.

“We’ve consistently been building,” she said.

At its peak, more than 40 instructors taught roughly 1,100 students weekly, Hyman said.

“There were a lot of hurdles to overcome.”–Rishona Hyman

She began searching to build an Aqua Essence pool around 12 years ago.

“There were a lot of hurdles to overcome,” she noted.

Landlords fretted about mould, humidity and how the pool would affect other tenants, she said. There’s the added trouble of digging, and what happens if Aqua Essence leaves?

Finally, a real estate agent working with SmartCentres was instructed to “think outside the box” to find tenants, according to Hyman.

SmartCentres did not respond to media requests by print deadline.

Hyman said she’d previously worked with the real estate agent, who connected the two parties. The pandemic struck before she could sign a lease.

“The aquatic industry really took a hit,” Hyman said.

Teaching in hotel pools, plus leading babysitting courses online, kept Aqua Essence afloat.

Aqua Essence continues to use hotel pools and Eldon Ross Pool. It opened its own 1,500 sq. ft. basin over the winter holidays.

“I’m thrilled,” Hyman said, standing at the pool’s edge.

The back wall was temporarily removed to make way for the stainless steel tub, which came in pieces.

“We really paid attention to all the little details,” said Julia Kroft, an Aqua Essence instructor-turned-marketing director.

Handrails were welded to the stairs to prevent shaking; the water temperature hovers around 88 F to keep swimmers comfortable. Hyman chose a stainless steel pool — the first of its kind in Manitoba — because it’s supposed to prevent mould and rot.

The pool itself, without the mechanics to keep it running, cost around $300,000, according to Hyman.

“I think it’s really cool,” said Natasha Fogel while holding her two-year-old after a class.

Julianna wanted to get back in the water: “she loves swimming,” Fogel explained while Julianna wailed.

The Canadian Red Cross ended its swimming curriculum last year. Aqua Essence now uses its own program and keeps class sizes small — usually one to three swimmers per instructor.

A one-on-one session costs $48. Two-on-one is $28; baby classes are $18.

“It’s nice that it’s kind of rejuvenating the area,” Fogel said. “It’s obviously bringing new people here.”

Hocken struck a similar tune.

“Nobody wants to drive by and see a bunch of closures,” the parent said. “To get more businesses like this in here that can keep the… district alive is important.”

“You’ve got this infrastructure in place. It makes sense that you would see new types of services fill those spaces.”–Sean Buchanan

The area isn’t very walkable, noted Sean Buchanan, a University of Manitoba business administration professor.

Some retailers who used to rent in the SmartCentres hub, like Garage, have moved to the nearby Tuxedo outlet mall, which came online in May of 2017.

“You’ve got this infrastructure in place,” Buchanan said. “It makes sense that you would see new types of services fill those spaces.”

Similar transitions are happening in cities like Los Angeles, he added.

“It’s good on the one hand… (having) useful community services,” Buchanan said. “On the other hand, it’s still dictated by cars and not really public-oriented pedestrian planning.”

Hyman expects to see more privately owned swimming facilities in the coming years. After all, they’re “almost on every corner” in Toronto, she said.


Gabrielle Piché

Gabrielle Piché

Gabby is a big fan of people, writing and learning. She graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in the spring of 2020.

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