After COVID, we swim for good times

The Memorial Day weekend that just passed marks the symbolic start of America’s summer. And with it comes the kickoff of a longstanding American tradition – summer league swimming for kids – that’s going to be warmly received after a year of lockdowns.

Throughout the country, boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 18 will be donning suits, caps and goggles as part of a routine that typically includes weekday morning practices and weekend meets. If you’ve ever wondered why the United States dominates swimming in the Olympics – having won more than four times the number of gold medals as any other country – the summer league system is part of the answer.

Beat the heat

It introduces kids to the sport in what economists might call an “optimized environment.” Start with virtually all summer league swimming happening outside and in large group settings. What’s not to like about a sport where you beat the heat by being in the water with your peers?

Also, summer league teams are typically coed. Boys compete against boys and girls against girls. But practices are mixed and teams – made up of swimmers from all age groups – vie as a single unit. That makes 5-year-old swimmers just as valuable as 18-year-old swimmers. Is there any other sport that puts boys and girls of all ages on one team and makes them equals?  

Matthew Rees and his sister Johanna in 1976. (Photo: Family courtesy)

While summer league swimming can breed fierce rivalries between teams (and among swimmers on the same team), there’s also a focus on the fun side of the whole experience. Thus the slogan embraced by some teams: “We swim for good times.” (Michael Phelps, after a particularly enjoyable competition several years ago, said, “I felt like a summer league swimmer out there.”) 

Summer league swimming typically encompasses much more than just practices and meets. With coaches who are often still enrolled in high school or college, they’ll lead their teams through pasta parties, lip-sync performances, field trips, movie nights, rallies and delightfully antediluvian activities, like banana-eating relays. Spirit is also prized, which means endless cheering, coupled with affixing team chants – “eat my bubbles” is a personal favorite – to cars, shirts and various body parts.

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I’ve observed all of this activity in connection with my daughter’s high-energy team, Chesterbrook, in McLean, Virginia. What’s striking is how little has changed since my summer league swimming, for Springbrook Pool in Lafayette, California, ended nearly 40 years ago. Yes, the swimmers are faster and the equipment is a little different (no one wore goggles in my era). But swim practices, swim meets and the entire swim team experience have an identical rhythm and feel. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

A summer of good times 

I’d bet that kids today will cherish their summer swim team memories. I’d also bet that they, like me, will barely remember the meets or the practices.

My recollections primarily revolve around the groovy coaches with Dickensian names (Peter Cool and Lori Finn), the superstars whose names decorated the team’s record board (Claire Insinger and Curt Schoelkopf), and the hours-long, post-practice leisure time with teammates (Matt Steinhaus and Joey Allen). The pranks were also memorable, such as tricking our coach into taking a bite out of a brown crayon that had been disguised in a Tootsie Roll wrapper.

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The COVID-19 lockdowns of the past year have been challenging for everyone – but kids in particular. A summer of swimming that’s focused on “good times” will be a very worthy remedy. 

Matthew Rees is editor of the Food and Health Facts newsletter and president of the ghostwriting firm Geonomica.  

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