Now for something completely different — well, sort of — I’m back in the sports saddle at The O-N-E, and this past week the duty took me to my first-ever swim meet. The experience was certainly educational and entertaining, so much that I want to make sure Wednesday night’s meet at Lenoir-Rhyne University won’t be my last.
For the past 10 years or so, I have been an on-again, off-again sportswriter. During my eight years in Catawba County, I captured photos and published stories related to the most popular sports in the area. From football and basketball to volleyball, golf and cross country, I’m pretty sure I’ve been to every one of the county’s high schools to cover one sports event or another.
However, it never seems swimming has been on the schedule when I’ve been on the sports duty.
Of course, I am no stranger to swimming — I have been paddling around in the water since I was a baby. The wife and I also live within eyesight of Hickory Foundation YMCA, so sunny weekends by the pool are always on the calendar. In fact, during warm weather about the only thing that can keep me from the pool are weekend-long swim meets that the Y hosts two or three times each summer.
During those weekends, I admit I sometimes begrudge the YMCA Seahorses and Catawba Valley Aquatic Club as they and dozens of peer swim teams descend on what I consider “my” swimming pool. Heck, it may as well be in our yard it is so close — we can even hear the buzzers signaling the start of events along with accompanying cheers of parents gathered in their temporary tent city on the pool deck. Yes, there have been a few summer days when I’ve observed through the fence the mass of humanity that participates and surrounds the swimming competitions.
Still, until Wednesday, I’d never actually attended a swim meet.
So when I packed up the camera and bundled up to brave the chilly night air, I didn’t really know what to expect when I arrived at Lenoir-Rhyne. From the moment I set foot inside the pool area, I learned my first lesson: the last thing you need at an indoor swim meet is a sweater, much less a coat.
After shedding a couple winter layers, I observed the frenzy of swimsuit-clad boys and girls was just as harried as it appeared through the YMCA fence. Guys and gals gathered in groups at the ends of the pool, huddled around coaches and examining what somebody called a “heat sheet.”
Those not on semi-dry land were in the pool, swimming lap after lap after lap. In one lane, a team huddled at the middle of the pool, while, one by one, swimmers split from the pack to swim a half lap and return to the group. Another lane seemed filled to capacity with a circulating group of lap swimmers moving perpetually from one end of the pool to the other. Everywhere there were swimmers swimming, watching and, later, either diving off the starting blocks or racing back into line for the next practice dive.
And all this was going on before the first event officially started.
To me, it seemed a little odd that all these boys and girls were in and out of the pool, swimming their arms and legs off, and the actual competition hadn’t even commenced. Maybe its only odd because I feel like I’m getting a serious workout if I swim 10 laps. For these kids, swimming a few dozen laps was a warm-up for the real event.
In short, it was organized chaos that probably made perfect sense to every person in the building except me. Clarity came no closer once the event started.
Without any sort of announcement or orchestration, swimmers made their way to the starting end of the pool. Nobody tossed a coin, no umpire called, “Batter up,” and certainly no referee tossed up the tip-off. It seemed swimmers simply knew when it was time for them to climb atop the starting blocks and “take their mark.” Of course once buzzer sounds and bodies hit the water, I could tell what stroke they were completing, but until then, I was completely lost. I didn’t know what race was happening, what heat was occurring or how many laps the race would require.
Fortunately, the young people and their coaches did, and because they did, when each race started, all the confusion and frenzy disappeared. All eyes turned to the pool to see boys and girls dedicating themselves to competition. That’s when I realized that, despite all the confusion, swimming and swim meets are, in many ways, just like every other sporting event I have had the pleasure of attending in Catawba County.
They may not be on turf or hardwood, but the boys and girls swimming in the pool are athletes dedicated to performing well for themselves and for their team. They practice hard — most of them every day. They give 100 percent when the day for competition arrives — both in the water swimming and on the poolside cheering for teammates and friends. There’s even a bit of rivalry as teams compete to beat cross-county peers.
Yes, swimming doesn’t always get the attention it deserves, but hopefully that can change — especially since this county has some extremely talented swimmers worthy of our support and praise. With that in mind, I can’t promise that I can make the whole county sit up and take notice of our vibrant swimming community. I can say, however, that when swimming is on the sports calendar in the future, I will do my best to find a way to be there.
Michael Willard is the publisher of and a columnist for The Observer News Enterprise. His column appears in the weekend edition.