Everybody Into the Pool, Swim League for (All) the Ages
The athletes begin arriving a bit more than an hour before the competition begins.
The spectators at the same time – the early-birds staking out prime spots along the sidelines in a viewing area that will reach 15 rows deep.
Preparations for the all-important concession area are well under way with people heating up grills, icing drinks, and displaying all manner of baked and sugar-filled goods.
Team colors are evident in a wide variety of clothing and clear lines of demarcation form between the fans. Soon the field of play starts to take shape, lines are set, officials meet, competitors gather in large groups to hear motivating speeches from the coaches and chant their team slogans, and then, at the appointed time, the national anthem is sung by one or more of the athletes.
And finally, the action begins!
Groups of 4 to 8-year-old girls approach the pool and get ready to swim the first event of the meet – the 100 yard medley relay.
The scene above replays itself time and again on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the seven weeks between mid-June and the end of July at the four area pools that comprise the Central Pennsylvania Swim League (CPSL) – Park Forest, Welch, Science Park, and Penns Valley.
Full disclosure – our son swims for the Park Forest Bullfrogs so any bias here is most definitely intended! OK, I'm just kidding. Haha – fooled you, no I'm not! (Hey, c'mon – how can you not be a fan of a team with a sign in the parking lot that reads "Bullfrog Parking Only – All Others Will Be Toad.")
The aforementioned Bullfrogs, Sharks, Dolphins, and Penguins (it's cold out there in the Valley!) are comprised of youth and young adults between the ages of 4 and 18. Each team swims a round-robin schedule of meets – one home and one away against each of the other teams for a total of six meets.
There's also a Day of Joy Relay Meet in the morning on the third Saturday in July – where anything can and most often does go – and the season culminates in the "Championships" during the last week in July.
I'm an unabashed walking, talking billboard for two things – arts and athletics. The CPSL is about as pure an example of athletics as you'll find. It serves hundreds of young athletes. It's fun. The athletes learn a sport they can carry with them for life. There is competition. Parental involvement is high. And the ages of the participants are varied enough so that you have a large gap in skill levels – something you might think is a negative but turns out to be a huge positive.
The age-range of the athletes on the CPSL teams is somewhat unique among local youth sports in that a five-year-old and a 17 year-old are on the same team, a uniqueness that provides an opportunity for other non-football/basketball sports to imitate if they can. One moment a five-year-old will be in the pool doing everything she can to swim one 25-yard length in less than two minutes, and soon after a 17-year-old will be swimming the same stroke for the same team and covering twice the distance in a time worthy of a collegiate athlete.
The dynamics of that dichotomy are especially important to the five-year-old and his/her age peers.
First, because they look up to the older swimmers – they want to "be like Mike." The older swimmers provide instruction, cheer on the younger swimmers, help guide them through the procedures of the meet, and act as amazingly mature role models.
They also provide the younger swimmers with an extremely grounded and reality-based goal – "these older swimmers were once just like me." They started out doing just what I'm doing. I CAN be them one day. I can swim that fast too!
Instead of watching outstanding athletes play their sport on TV or from the stands in a stadium, the young swimmers get to perform WITH the outstanding athletes. In the same place, at the same time, and on the same team.
Second, because the young swimmers get the same crowd reinforcement as the older swimmers. The unbridled joy on the face of the five-year-old mentioned above as she completes that one length of the pool to the cheers of the fans — including her much-older teammates — tells all anyone needs to know about the efficacy of youth athletics.
And that same five-year-old will be cheering wildly for those much older teammates. It's a beautiful equation and one that builds and supports the sport in a grassroots way that no amount of money can buy.
So if you happen to be driving by a local pool on a Tuesday or Thursday evening, see the lights blazing, kids and adults shouting, and the smell of burgers wafting through the night air ... well, find a parking place, come on in (it's free), grab some "chicken on a stick" and enjoy watching the youth of Happy Valley being the best they can be.