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Strokes Inside the Greensboro City Meet

by Brian Clarey

BY BRIAN CLAREY

PART’ I: A SWIM DAD’S DISCLOSURE

The Yellow Brick Road is made with electric tape, applied in a pattern on the concrete floor of the Greensboro Coliseum’s Special Events Center, beginning at the entrance to the Lawndale Swim & Tennis Club Lizards’ cordoned area and just starting to swerve around the section occupied by the Oak Ridge Orcas.

For the next three days this space will serve as the Athletes Village during the Greensboro Community Swim Association City Meet, held since 1959, when the Friendly Frogs won the first competition at the Lindley Park Pool.

This is the first year the meet will go down at the Greensboro Aquatic Center, the new, space-age natatorium built at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex after a contentious bond issue passed in 2008. This meet was a’ major selling point.

Today, the first day of the meet, is its own occasion:

Almost 2,100 swimmers, aged 4-19 from 23 different teams, will compete in 123 events with multiple heats for each category. Everybody who wants to swims on the first day, which is more about participation than competition. For the Friday and Saturday events, each team can place no more than three swimmers in each event. And because some teams have more than 100 kids, the long Thursday is essential to the CSA’s mission.

This is basically a summer rec league, the teams representing various neighborhood pools, country clubs, swim and tennis clubs and benevolent organizations. The regular-season meets have been running weekly since late May — big, elaborate affairs at the community pools — and this culminating event is like a three-day festival for the teams, the kids and their parents.

I have a disclosure to make: I am a swim dad; my 12-year-old son Beckett swims for the Greensboro Elks.

All season long I’ve been carting him to practices, hustling out of work early on Tuesdays to stand with other parents in the unseasonably cold and oppressive heat to watch him swim in pools all around the city. It’s his first year in the sport, so I never braved the crowds when the city meet was at Lindley Park, though I often saw the spectacle when I was driving on Wendover Avenue. I’ve never been to City Meet at all, and I’m immediately struck by the scope of the endeavor.

In the Athletes Village on Day 1, each team has an area set off by low blue curtains. Children spill out of them, scampering on the concrete. Parents lay towels and blankets on the floor, set up coolers full of snacks and drinks, write their kids’ names on shoulder blades with Sharpies, list the numbers of their events on their forearms.

Each team has adopted a theme for Saturday’s parade, and some decorate their areas accordingly. While the kids from Lawndale construct their Yellow Brick Road — this year they are the Lizards of Oz — the parents of the’ Adams Farm Aquadragons hang pictures of superheroes along the wall of their space.

A tented breezeway leads to the aquatic center, where things are getting underway. The participants in the first event, the girls 6 and under 100-yard freestyle relay, walk in a hand-held chain to the starting blocks, take their positions on either side of the pool. As the starting horn sounds, Claire Yonce, 6, the second swimmer for the Lake Jeanette Lightning team, jumps the gun, falling into the pool ahead of her turn and then furiously paddling back to the block before her teammate crosses.

All skill levels compete today, performances ranging from the semi-controlled splashing of the young kids to the more seasoned strokes of the older teenagers and year-round Greensboro Swimming Association participants.

And I quickly realize that covering this event is like nothing I’ve ever done before. It’s a form of loosely organized chaos that swim parents call “cat herding,” with alternating lines of wet and dry children moving quickly through the space, events ticking off in rapid succession, throngs of parents in the stands jockeying for position in the 2,500 seats, names flashing on the scoreboard, coaches screaming from the deck. The action in the pool defies any attempt at imposing a narrative or statistical analysis. And as for keeping score: forget about it. There are 123 events running in two pools, most of them less than a minute long and some with 10 heats or more.

All I can do is cheer for my kid, my kid’s friends and my friends’ kids. I watch Chris Roulhac’s son Will Sears, 17, of the Starmount Country Club Stingrays take third in his breaststroke heat. And my friend Ben Holder’s son Graham, 11, wins his freestyle heat. Wes Gregory’s son Wesley, 11, places in backstroke. My son, a 12-year-old breaststroker, finishes first in his heat, but we later learn he is disqualified for not touching the wall with both hands at the turn. If he is bothered by this, he does not show it.

At the end of the day, the Friendly Frogs take the meet with a score of 783.5, more than 100 points ahead of second-place finisher the Greensboro Country Club Blue Dolphins, who registered 673.5. The Green Valley Park Gators finish third with 379, and my Elks make it to 7th place.’ But tomorrow is another day.

PART II: DOWN TO BASICS

Under the tented entrance of the GAC, two dads stood among the displays of swimsuits, T-shirts, hoodies, goggles and hand-monogrammed towels for sale as their kids stand to the side.

One father said to the other’s kid: “Your dad and I used to swim against each other all the time.”

The kid was nonplussed. The day began early, with preliminaries starting at 8:30 a.m. The slate of contestants was more manageable today — just three from each club per event, though we’d still see 30 events this morning, with up to five heats each, up to 10 swimmers per heat. Today included individual backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle events for all age groups.

Most mammals can swim, even those that are not physically designed to do so: Hamsters can swim; so can elephants. Even cats can swim, however reluctantly. But it is innately human to take this skill and organize it into competition.

The first modern swimming races began in Europe around 1800, though island and coastal cultures had likely been doing it for thousands of years by then, and knights in the Middle Ages were required to be able to swim, even in their armor, for its usefulness in battle.

In the first modern swimming races in Europe, all races were swum in breaststroke. But in 1844, a team of Native Americans was invited to compete in a meet held in Lon don’ by the Swimming Society. While the British paddled their breaststroke through the water, the North Americans swam the overhand crawl, now known as “freestyle.”

This unorthodox stroke enabled the Americans to move much faster through the water and dominate the games, though the Brits decried the style as undignified because it involved too much splashing and placing one’s face directly in the water. The style wasn’t formally adopted into competition for another 40 years.

The backstroke was introduced into competition at the 1900 Olympic Games in Paris, though it certainly predates this by thousands of years. The backstroke goes faster than the breaststroke, but not as fast as the butterfly.

The butterfly — the most difficult of all the strokes and also, when done impeccably, the fastest — was invented at the turn of the 20th century by an Australian, Sydney Cavill, and refined by German swimmer Erich Rademacher in the 1920s and again by University of Iowa swimming coach David Armbruster in 1934.

For years, swimmers used the fly to blow away the competition in breaststroke races, sometimes being disqualified for the technique. It wasn’t recognized in the Olympics until the games in Melbourne, Australia in 1956.

Here at the aquatic center, the morning preliminary heats whittled down the field into the Top 20 finishers. The results were often predictable, with heats compartmentalized into time categories and the strongest swimmers seeded into the last two or three heats. The strongest swimmer in each heat races in Lane 5, the slowest in the outer lanes of 1 and 10. Generally speaking, after the starting horn the swimmers fan out in a V-shape like a flock of migrating geese. But sometimes the heat of competition brings out unpredictability.

Madison Thurmond, 13, of the Ridgewood Country Club Riptide, found herself seeded in Lane 5 of the preliminary backstroke heat with a top qualifying time of 29 seconds, the best in the city. Lucy Pearce, 13, of the Greensboro Country Club Blue Dolphins, was a half-second underdog, in Lane 5 for the third heat. Pearce maintained her pace in the preliminaries, but Thurmond added more than 5 seconds to her time, placing her as an alternate in the finals and allowing Pearce to finish second overall in the afternoon session, where she knocked a full second off her time, behind Green Valley Gator Heather Sigmon who set a city record at 28.29 seconds.

This year’s city meet rewrote the record book, partly a result of the aquatic center pool, which is regarded as a fast one.

Indoor pools are faster than outdoor pools, generally speaking, because of the ability to maintain a temperature and water purity, both of which affect speed. Deeper pools are faster than shallow ones because the depth allows water turbulence to dissipate more quickly, reducing friction between the swimmer and the water. The aquatic center’s main pool is 9 to 10 feet deep, and gutters under the pool’s edge aid in what the GAC website calls “rapid evacuation of wave action.”

Backstroker Natalie Harris, 16, of the Friendly Frogs hoped to earn her own place of distinction in the City Meet annals.

The record for the 15-19 girls in the 50-yard backstroke has stood at 27.65, set by Walker Schott of the Blue Dolphins at City Meet in 2008. Harris’ qualifying time of 28.25 threatened to best it.

Before the race, Harris, with the broad shoulders and tapered torso of a longtime swimmer, jumped in place, adjusted her goggles and black swim cap, shook her leg muscles loose before dropping into the pool and taking her set position. At the buzzer, she arced into a tight backdive and dolphin-kicked underwater for half the distance of the pool, rising ahead of the pack, and made it to the halfway point in a mere dozen strokes. She flipped a tight turn and moved again like an exotic fish for the comeback as the Lightning’s Hannah Martin made up ground. Harris finished just .09 seconds ahead of Martin with a time of 27.89, good enough for the first seed in the finals, but still a fraction of a second away from a record.

In the 25-19 boys backstroke category, Jonathon Rogers, 17, of the Hamilton Lakes Hornets enjoyed a .1 second qualifying advantage over the next fastest swimmer, Pieter Brower, 16, of the Gators. In Heat 5, Rogers, long and lean, used underwater dolphin kicks and a tight, lowsplash style to win the heat by a full two seconds, but still almost two seconds off the record-setting pace set last year by Colin James of the Aquadragons.

Rogers, who has been swimming competitively since he was 7 years old, said the dolphin kick gave him his winning edge.

“I kinda started to figure that out when I was 13 or 14, my underwater work,” he said, “especially on backstroke, because that’s when it comes in the most.”

For the afternoon finals, Harris had earned the thirdbest time, placing her in Lane 6 with the top spots going to Hannah Martin, 18, of the Lightning and 18-year-old Orca Elisa Costa, respectively.

At the buzzer, Harris submerged with a backdive and took almost two-thirds of the length of the pool underwater, surfacing at the front of the pack but quickly overcome by Martin, who moved ahead on a faster stroke. Then Harris worked the turn to her advantage, pushing hard off the wall and taking the lead while still underwater, rising just a few powerful strokes from the finish.

When it was over, she’d registered a time of 27.45, breaking the previous record by .2 seconds.

Rogers finished his race almost a full second faster than his qualifying time, fast enough for the gold but not for the City Meet record.

Caitlin Casazza, 16, of the High Point Elks, fresh off her

appearance at the US Olympic trials in Omaha, already owned a portion of the City Meet record book going into Friday’s competition: two breaststroke records, one for the 15-19 50-yard butterfly and two individual medley records. In the breaststroke preliminary, she bested her own record by almost a full second.

Before Casazza took the block for her breaststroke race, she slapped the muscles in her arms and legs to get the blood going. She’s short and powerful, a slab of muscle, pale in comparison to the other competitors who have spent the summer under the sun by the pool. After the buzzer she takes two-thirds of the pool in her dive and surfaces on point.

There are two kinds of breaststrokers. Some swim at a faster pace, using more strokes to make ground. Others rely on power, using stronger, longer strides to cover distance. Casazza is both kinds, stroking quickly but also moving fast through the water. When it was over she had beaten her nearest competitor, Sara Graham, 16, of the Riptide, by more than four seconds, and shaved another 0.2 seconds off her record.

In the next race, the boys 15-19 50-yard breaststroke, Casazza’s brother Zack, 18, a half-second underdog against Jacob Thomas, 17, of the Southeast Tigersharks, finishes first as well in Lane 8.

At the end of the day, the Friendly Frogs have a convincing hold on First Place with 1,076.5 points. Second place belongs to the Blue Dolphins with 986, and the Hornets sit at third with 768.

Frogs Head Coach Erin Harris, Natalie’s mother, has been a presence at this event since she used to swim for Green Valley as a youth. She equated her team’s success — they won city meet last year — with her own longevity.

“I’ve just been here so long,” she said. “I think they just look at my wrinkles and say, ‘Dude, we should do what she says.’”

PART III: PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

The Greensboro Aquatic Center is the newest facility of its kind in the state, with more than 78,000 square feet of space and 17,895 square feet of water surface that includes a warm-up pool, a diving tank with springboards and platforms, and a competition pool that can hold up to 22 short-course lanes.

And it is air-conditioned, a fact not lost on the parents who remember braving the heat at Lindley Park.

There are definite differences to the event in this new facility. Some parents bemoan the lack of community feel that the neighborhood pool provided, the parking fee, the cost of concessions, which in years past were provided by and for the teams themselves but are now the sole province of the coliseum. And the swimmers themselves are not allowed in the arena unless they are swimming, making it impossible for teams to cheer on their own.

But these gripes seem of little concern to the kids themselves, who on Day 3 of city meet frolic in the Athletes Village after the slate of morning preliminaries.

The room has taken on the air of a summer festival: part high school musical, part hobo encampment, part Lord of the Flies. The teams prepare for the afternoon parade, an annual tradition, embodying their themes in costumes and music. There are togas and pirates, nerds and Uncle Sam hats. The Yellow Brick Road has wound halfway down the thoroughfare as the Lawndale Lizards besuit themselves as munchkins and tin men. The Bur-Mil Park Marlins dress in black, with party hats and noisemakers to match their theme of New Year’s Eve. The frogs pay homage to the Disney canon, Coach Harris dressed as Alice in Wonderland. And the Grandover Griffins become a horde of zombies before they lurch into the aquatic center to the strains of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

In the pool, Day 3 sees the butterfly races, short-course freestyle, freestyle relays and the money event: the 100-yard individual medley.

The IM is a marathon of all four competitive strokes: butterfly into backstroke into breaststroke into freestyle. It is grueling and unforgiving, with the advantage going to breaststroke and butterfly specialists.

Not everyone can do the butterfly. It relies on both strength and coordination. If done properly it can be the fastest stroke in a swimmer’s arsenal. For others it can become a handicap that cannot be overcome even by the fastest freestyle sprint. The breaststroke, too, can affect an IM race. It’s the slowest overall stroke, so specialists can make up ground in the breaststroke portion of the race.

Sidney Goetz, 10, of the Frogs comes into Saturday’s IM final with First Place finishes in the girls 50-yard breaststroke and freestyle. She’s in Lane 4, timed in the preliminary more than a full second behind the Lane 5 swimmer, Corinne Davenport, 9, of the Marlins, and a half-second behind Lane 6 swimmer Kennedy Reid, 10, of the YMCA Bears.

Goetz is little and lithe, her black swim cap and bulging goggles making her look a little like the cartoon frogs on her bathing suit. Off the block, she performs a strong butterfly but comes off the first turn into backstroke in second place, behind Reid. After the third turn she’s in third, then pulls into second on the strength of her breaststroke. But though she’s a strong freestyle swimmer, she’s unable to match the stamina of Davenport, who earlier had medaled in the 100-yard free. Davenport wins by almost three seconds.

Caitlin Casazza swims the IM too, setting the girls 13-14 record in 2010 and the 15-19 last year. Today she’s matched against the backstroker Natalie Harris, who takes Lane 6 behind Casazza’s Lane 4 start.

At the buzzer they both take long starting dives, with Casazza getting the best start and pulling ahead in her powerful butterfly stroke. Harris hangs in during the backstroke leg of the race, but after the second turn it’s clear that the race is Casazza’s. Now it’s all about the record. She cuts across with her strong breaststroke and then turns into freestyle for the final sprint. It’s not her strongest stroke, but it will do. She touches at the finish with a new record time, 58.48, almost a full second faster than the one she set last year.

Rogers finished second earlier today in the butterfly heat to Percy Gates, 18, of the Friendly Frogs. Gates is a formidable swimmer who established a new fly record in that race and won the 100-yard freestyle the day before. They face off again in the individual medley with the edge going to Gates, who has a preliminary time almost three seconds faster.

Rogers keeps his butterfly on pace with Gates and pulls to within half a body length through the backstroke lap. But Gates uses his breast stroke to lengthen his lead, and finishes the freestyle sprint 1.5 seconds ahead of Rogers, setting another City Meet record.

That makes two for Gates. But this year’s meet belongs to Caitlin Casazza. In all Casazza sets three city meet records, including her performance in the 50-yard butterfly earlier on Saturday.

Rogers has his gold in the backstroke from Friday, as does Natalie Harris in her record-setting run.

And when the water has settled in the pool, the Friendly Frogs have won the meet with 2,147 points, ahead of the Greensboro Country Club Blue Dolphins with 1,839, and third-place finishers the Hamilton Lake Hornets, who registered 1,550 points.

Harris has another victory under her belt. She, along with Gates, was named one of this year’s recipients of the Community Swim Association scholarship, which should help her when she gets to UNC-Chapel Hill as a freshman in the fall. She says she won’t be trying out for the swim team, though.

“I think, with my times, I could probably make it,” she says, “but I’m gonna swim [for the] club [team]. I kind of decided I’ve had my time. I’m done.”

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