The Georgia Tech Natatorium has seen some impressive swims over the years, most notably during the 1996 Summer Olympics. Names like Ryan Lochte, Natalie Coughlin and Peter Vanderkaay grace the record boards that hang over the two competition pools. But this weekend, athletes of a different kind took to the water for the Atlanta Swim Association Summer League Championships.
Over 4800 kids and teenagers came out over the course of four days to swim for their team and the title of Summer League Champion. Based on the number of swimmers in one venue, this is the largest swim meet in the United States.
“Summer swimming started as a grassroots effort between a few teams,” said Matt Murphy, marketing director of Atlanta Swim Association. “As swim and tennis communities have developed across Atlanta, it’s really grown. Summer swimming has emerged as a great arena for kids to learn about swimming and a fun way for them to get fit.”
Thursday, Friday and Saturday saw five divisional sessions where the 86 teams are divided geographically. Atlanta Swim Association, despite the name, also fields teams from Alpharetta, Roswell, Forsyth and other suburbs outside the city center. The Divisonal Series allows teams to go up against old rivals from the season and swim some new teams as well.
On Sunday, the top swimmers from the weekend return for the Championship. For swimmers under the age of 12, the top 30 seeds return, while only the top 20 swim for the older age groups.
The Brookwood Hills Bullfrogs won the weekend, taking both the divisional title and the overall Championship title. This is the second year in a row that they have swept the event.
Head coach Tim Storsteen said "while winning is great, summer swimming is about so much more. It is about fun, team and learning: learning a sport that will stick with you for life, understanding the work ethic it takes to become great at it and doing this while part of a team!"
This meet culminates the summer swim team season that runs from mid-May to the end of June, where teams swim in five dual meets against neighboring competitors. After a rainy season, everyone was excited to get under cover at Georgia Tech and run a meet where at least the timers and officials remain dry, even if the swimmers do not. And for the kids, swimming at Tech is an experience all its own.
"Championships gives kids a chance to experience swimming at its best and see how much they have improved over the course of the season," said Robert Cochran, assistant coach for Brookwood Hills. "And they all love swimming in the 1996 Olympic pool at Georgia Tech."
For many of these athletes, this may be the closest they will come to Olympic swimming. Many of the 6 and unders are no taller than a touchpad, and often don't weigh enough to register a time. But whether or not they come back to swim on Sunday, all kids registered in the league benefit from a chance to swim in a professional setting.
"We're just excited to give kids the chance to swim," said Franke Marsden, League Director. "Some of these leagues have restrictive time standards for championships, but we take that off the table. This meet is like your Little League player having a chance to play at Fenway Park."
The meet has been at Georgia Tech for 13 years. While it's certainly an upgrade from the original location at Wills Park pool in Alpharetta, GA, some longtime swimmers are nostalgic for the outdoor meet that used to culminate the season.
"Georgia Tech is an incredible venue, but it's definitely more intense and professional," says Mimo Schulz, head coach of the Alpharetta Sharks.
Schulz is one of the countless coaches who came up through the program before taking the helm. She began swimming for Alpharetta when she was 5 and joined the coaching staff at age 15.
Ten years later, she has two Coach of the Year titles and a handful of Championships under her belt.
"The year we won the divisional, the Championship and I got my first Coach of the Year award, I thought I might quit while I was ahead," says Schulz. "But here I am. I love it and the kids love it. Summer swimming is just fun."
The meet isn't just mammoth. It's an efficient, well-oiled machine that seems to manage the 86 teams effortlessly. In fact, with a record number of swimmers, this meet is an organizational feat that takes legions of parent volunteers, officials and high school and college age coaches.
Carl Stokoe, owner of Peachtree Timing, can't stop raving about the precision of the event. Running touchpads and one plunger per lane on the Omega timing system, Carl and his team had to check no more than 15 manual times over the course of 23,000 splashes.
Marsden's team of officials contribute to this accuracy. His bullpen workers spend most of the weekend tracking down late swimmers and throwing them into any available lanes. During divisionals, not one swimmer was turned away, even if they missed their race. Referees can be heard reminding swimmers to put on their goggles and talking down 7 year olds who suddenly question their decision to sign up for the 100 IM.
Many of these referees will trade their khakis and polos for coaches tanks during different sessions. The swimming community in Atlanta is a tight one, and Finals on Sunday plays like one big family reunion.
"By Finals, everyone has a sense of the front runners, so it's more about just having a good time and wrapping up the season with everyone together," says Katherine Kerman, head coach of the Hanover West Hurricanes.
Whether they won a trophy, took home a ribbon or just got a chance to swim, the 4600 swimmers who came out to Georgia Tech this past weekend can be proud of finishing another summer swim season strong.
(Photos Coutsey of : River Oak Photography)