Living

Where neighborhood swimmers meet

My right thumb is twitching, unaccustomed as it is to my hand's emptiness on a summer Tuesday night.

There's no stopwatch to click inside my curled fingers, and my ears aren't straining to hear the horn that will send swimmers sailing off the blocks to the whoops and whistles of their neighborhood teammates and sweat-drenched parents.

For the first time in 13 years, I'm not standing on concrete in the heavy heat, not holding a clipboard and not timing a Planter's Walk Piranha in my lane during the first summer meet of the season. My daughter, now 19, has aged out of the sport after donning her first pair of goggles at age 6, her front teeth missing and her happy eyes chlorine-bloodshot in a 1998 snapshot during her first season.

But more than 10,000 other Wake County children on 78 Tarheel Swimming Association teams have been churning up the water every Tuesday this summer. A few elite teams recruit year-round swimmers to increase their chances of winning, but, for the most part, these neighborhood teams are wonderful little worlds of everything we should want a childhood sport to be.

Some teams have 150 or more swimmers, girls and boys, ranging in age from 4 to 18 - and there ain't no bench. Everybody swims. And the competition, more often than not, is between a swimmer and herself. Did she swim that backstroke a second faster than she did last week? She's a winner!

At a meet, 6-year-olds mingle with 15-year-old mentors they wouldn't otherwise have known in a neighborhood with hundreds of homes.

Parents who had never met before swim practice began stand together, some with tears in their eyes, and clap in unison when an 8-year-old finally touches the wall after flailing down the lane, eyes shut, his wayward goggles around his neck.

At a meet, this child, and several more like him, can clamber out of the pool in last place, smile widely with Ring-Pop-stained lips and ask a mother earnestly, "Did I win?" And she can say honestly, given that he finished the race, "You did great!"

It's a sport that inspires team spirit when scores of prepubescent screamers of both sexes jump up and down and nearly faint from the exertion when their 15-to-18-year-old boys' freestyle relay team out-touches the other team by a second. It's a sport that bonds kids who go their separate ways during the school year. Four-member relay teams on our neighborhood squad routinely are made up of swimmers who go to four different schools.

It's a sport for which the sting of losing lasts only as long as the ride between the pool and the closest ice cream parlor, where the team is gathering to stretch out the camaraderie for as long as possible.

It's a sport that inspires such devotion that one gregarious guy has manned the grill at our snack bar - his barker call of "Hotdogs! Hamburgers! Get your hotdogs, hamburgers!" always eliciting laughs - even during years he couldn't talk one of his three children into swimming.

Letting go of my own devotion has been difficult.

I can take some comfort, I guess, from knowing my feet won't ache for days now after standing four solid hours behind the blocks with a stopwatch in my hand. My heart, however, is going to ache for a good long while.

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