An Open Letter to Summer League Swimming

Photo Courtesy: Linda Griswold

By Molly Griswold, Swimming World College Intern.

The palms of your hands grip your elbows, eyes wandering up and down the length of the pool. You triple-check the event, heat, lane and stroke grid etched in Sharpie on your arm to ensure you’re in the right place. Your head frantically moves back and forth trying to find your coach. Tears stream down your face as the coach kneels at your side asking, “What’s wrong?”


Photo Courtesy: Linda Griswold

The coach agrees to swim that seemingly mile-long trek with you down the pool, but your tiny body is


Photo Courtesy: Linda Griswold

still trembling. You make eye contact with George Washington on the one dollar bill waving in front of your lane as your incentive to hop in. Sunburned skin touches the cold water; you hear a soft hush and an air horn; you spin your arms like little windmills; then you touch the wall with your coach at your side.

You hop out and skip off to buy a lollipop with your heat ribbon and dollar in hand.

This is a common experience for developing swimmers – the tears never last long and the memories last a lifetime. For many young swimmers, summer swim league entails a few weeks of pasta parties, ice cream socials, swim meets and fun. But for others, it is the beginning of their swimming careers.

No matter the reason for taking part, the lessons learned from summer swim league are the same across all lanes.

Building Friendships


Photo Courtesy: Linda Griswold

Summers by a pool and underneath the hot sun allow you to develop long-lasting friendships with teammates, swimmers and families. These friendships grow from endless hours of playing cards on picnic blankets between events and all-day meets, cheering for teammates and embracing with wet hugs after races. You never forget to write “Eat My Bubbles!” in permanent marker on each other’s backs and to pull on bathing suit straps for good luck.

Growing Courage and Confidence


Photo Courtesy: Linda Griswold

As the years progress in summer league swimming, the water that once sparked fearful tears becomes your home. One day, it will be remembered as your second home.

Dave Eldridge, Junior National champion and Olympic Trial qualifier, began swimming summer league at age five when he was thrown in the pool and told to go! Taking that jump into the pool grew Eldridge’s confidence in the water- a confidence that he could one day pass along to the thousands of swimmers he has influenced as a club team coach. He recalls, “As a coach, summer league is where most of our swimmers start and continue to swim. Many, if not all, of my YMCA National swimmers started in summer league.”

Years later, swimmers tend to reflect back and see summer league as the place where it all began. Even throughout the course of just one summer season, nerves give way to excitement during team cheers, and “cant’s” become “wills” in the pool.


Photo Courtesy: Linda Griswold

Developing Love for the Water

The laid-back atmosphere of summer league swimming helps develop the love for the sport and the water. Sitting crisscross applesauce waiting to be marshaled and enjoying all of the team spirit activities that surround the league helps swimmers to begin the true love for swimming. Whether this love develops into a “love/hate” relationship is up to the swimmer to decide.


Photo Courtesy: Linda Griswold

Having Fun in the Sun


Photo Courtesy:

Summer league is a reminder that swimming is more than the competition – it’s the memories, joy and laughter. Before Olympian Tom Wilkens began swimming at age five at the Middletown Swim and Tennis Club in New Jersey, he was afraid to put his face in the water and get his head wet. Almost twenty years later, Wilkens won a Bronze Medal in the 200 IM in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

He reflects on the start of his swimming career, saying, “I think summer league provided the perfect foundation for my success as a swimmer, as the focus is on development and improvement, having fun while racing, and competing as part of a team. During the entirety of my career, the things that kept me motivated were the camaraderie I had with my teammates, the joy I felt while swimming and racing, and the opportunity I had to improve every day.”

For many summer league swimmers, those fun moments and memories may include the following: sticking ribbons on your arms like temporary tattoos, holding each other’s hands so you don’t get lost being led to your lane, dressing in funny costumes at championships, receiving awards and feeling proud over a paper plate, indulging in well-deserved Munchkins on those early mornings, and laughing when you forget to place your vibrant-colored goggles over your eyes.

Understanding Success

One of the most important concepts for summer league swimmers is that accomplishments are defined differently for each swimmer. Making comparisons between the fastest and the slowest is insignificant. Instead, achievement should be felt and appreciated in various forms based on the individual athlete.


Photo Courtesy: Linda Griswold

1992 Olympic Trial qualifier and club coach Ken Dunlap followed suit behind his older siblings who swam for a summer league team. He notes, “Success can be winning the 25-yard freestyle, but it can take on more subtle forms as well. For example, success might be completing a lap of breaststroke legally for the first time.”

Coming Full-Circle

Many swimmers who stick with the sport eventually become coaches one day. Wilkens, who is a coach and father to two young swimmers, discusses how it feels to come full circle: As a parent, I am proud that my kids chose to swim … because I love this sport and think that it teaches kids so many great lessons. As a coach, I feel fortunate that I can give something back to the sport that gave so much to me.”


Photo Courtesy: Molly Griswold

As you grow up, you see yourself in the younger swimmers you coach: the timid swimmer afraid to get in the pool; a hungry swimmer who brings a chicken nugget behind his lane; that swimmer who tugs on the legs of coaches; sometimes the swimmer who goes missing right before racing time; the swimmer who starts the team chants and cheers; and the swimmer who wants to be a coach someday.

At one point, you were once a young summer league swimmer. And one day, these kids will grow up to be the coaches and influencers of the sport we love so much.

-All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.


  1. avatar
    Joe G

    Great article!!! Our summer league program NSSL (northern Suburban Swim League) of SE Michigan is the best thing I’ve come across in my 40+ years around swimming. I encourage USA Swimming to take a page out of summer league swimming, and put some much needed improvement back into the sport that summer league provides. It’s for everyone, the novice & the elite!

  2. Joe Gerzema

    Great article!!! Our summer league program NSSL (northern Suburban Swim League) of SE Michigan is the best thing I’ve come across in my 40+ years around swimming. I encourage USA Swimming to take a page out of summer league swimming, and put some much needed improvement back into the sport that summer league provides. It’s for everyone, the novice & the elite!

    • Mark Hesse

      Joe Gerzema summer league are awesome which specific pages would you like USA Swimming to take from summer league?

    • Joe Gerzema

      Mark Hesse , okay here are a few.

      Bring back duel meets—-It’s about the team, the team, the team! 8 year olds cheering for 18 year olds, & vice versa. Stop the DQ’s that don’t matter—-A 6 year old who turns over on their front in backstroke should not be dq’d. Make it a teaching point unless it’s cheating for advantage. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Swimming is an amazing sport, but your ? doesn’t stink. Summer Swim is loose but at the same time competitive, inspiring & rewarding. Every heat might not matter, but it’s important to those individuals. Lets encourage our sport that everyone matters. Let’s take these little kids trying out swimming to someday aspire to be on their high school team. That’s where kids fulfill their dreams of being part of an everlasting team, & where they establish memories that last forever. Plus, they pass on the sport! Let’s get them to 9th grade swimming, where there are typically no cuts & lettering is a strong possibility. Summer swimming promotes it, I’m not sure USA swimming invitationals is for everyone. Just a few thoughts from a power 5 ncaa conference swim captain from back in the day. Now experiencing the love of summer swim with his kids.

    • Raquel Ramos

      Joe Gerzema Thank you. Yes, it is for every kind of swimmer!

    • avatar

      Joe Gerzema NSSL was a great league to grow up in. I remember those days.

  3. Steve Cox

    Great article-spot on. Our summer league in Knoxville,TN is called GKAISA. An acronym for the League that routinely has several thousand kids. Great neighborhood meets and socials. There is mid summer meet which is the nations largest outdoor meet. Smoky Mountain Invitational(No Year round club swimmers allowed) and a huge season ending summer meet at The University of TN. My son loved his 10+ yrs in summer league. The league has turned out several hundred college swimmers over the last 40 yrs and has helped kids in the league with thousands of dollars of college scholarships. Summer swim league was a great decision for our family.

    • Steve Cox

      Raquel Ramos the club kids are allowed for all weeknight meets and any practices they want to participate in as well as the season ending city meet. The only meet they are not allowed in is the huge outdoor meet(Smoky Mtn Invitational). This is just to have one meet where summer only swimmers compete against only themselves. I can see my above explanation was confusing. All kids are welcome in our summer league and the club/yr round kids are a big part of it.

  4. Susan O

    Summer league swimming in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area with MCSL and NVSL is the number one reason the area is a hot bed of national swimmers. It all starts here and feeds the clubs. The MCSL has a US sanctioned long course meet in mid season where the top 8 swimmers in each event come to swim. These two leagues have been around since the mid 1950’s.

    • Mary Jurey

      A product of the NVSL myself!! Summer league not only has provided me with great memories and friends in my life, but has greatly contributed to my life long love of swimming!!!

    • Kiki Bowers

      Susan O’Brien Williams agreed! ?

      • avatar
        Beth Schaefer

        Summer swimming is the best! Westchester County, Ny has 2 leagues. We also have a Counties Meet that has been in existence since 1925! It takes place at the iconic Playland in Rye, NY (see the movie “Big”) and the winning team get passes for the amusement park after the final night of competition. Does anyone have an organized outdoor summer swim meet that is older?

  5. avatar
    Swimmer Fan

    Ah yes, the “pizza and ice cream” league. Fun times at your local neighborhood swim pool.

  6. avatar
    Kirk VanDeusen

    Great article. Summer swim is the best! Many memories and many firsts for kids, in life and in the pool. Nothing like stepping out of ones comfort zone. Why not make a splash while you’re at it.

  7. Eld Mort

    Keaton Hannon Koukis amy Amy Gerrity Harper Kasey Moore Bryan Sutherland Ashleigh Richardson

  8. Morgan LW Shanks

    Ellie Templeton & Ricka Hildebrand Woodruff this article made me think about our discussion last night about swimmer swim team. Wish Terre Haute still had it.

  9. Felicia Forrest

    Love this—where it all began for Grace and for our family. Summer league at Klahaya. Nothing better then summer swim!

  10. Peyton Orr Swick

    Jennifer Brocketto-Ashmore
    Ursula Zagaceta
    Jason Swick

    • Amy Thibault

      Monica Miller Garber love this article

  11. Laura Dills

    Summer swimming is the best! ?

  12. Kayla Zimmerman

    Kari Morrison Megan Buol Anthony Edge.
    This is spot on- it’s our story!

  13. avatar
    Kathryn Roberts

    Great story! I am the middle generation of a family that has swum summer league since my dad swam in Byrd Lake in Richmond, VA in the 30’s (not sure there was a league but there was a “city championship” that he did swim in.) Both my sisters and I swam summer league in Richmond. Then my daughter and son swam summer league in Charlotte, NC where I was the team mom for 7 years. Both went on to swim year round with MAC-no Olympian and not even a college swimmer between them but the learned so much! Now my 7 year old granddaughter just swam in the Greater Forsyth County Summer Championships in Greensboro, NC. This facility is geared to world class swimmers but Millie jumped in like a champ. No, her freestyle breathing still needs work and her backstroke arm turnover is a little slow but she did it, she finished, and she loved it. She cheered her Crazy Ducks on the entire time. And yes, her team has an Olympian to look up to-Kathleen Baker-an outstanding role model for all boys and girls began her swimming with the Crazy Ducks in Winston-Salem!

  14. avatar
    Tim Vagen

    Love this article. I get to announce meets for some of the fastest swimmers in the world in large settings, yet I will not give up my summer league meets even though my kids have grown up. It is the essence of swimming, a summer BBQ with some swim races thrown in. Love it!
    We do a “future all stars night” where we have the 3-4 y/o younger siblings get their chance to race a 25 FR. We do full on walk outs, big music, and introductions such as: “Please welcome in Lane 4, the 2036 Olympic silver medalist in the 200 freestyle, and a 4 time NCAA champion from Stanford….” and so on. Making it feel like a championship race. My favorite time of the year going into USA Swimming Championship season.

    • avatar

      That is ADORABLE! What a great and fun idea!

  15. avatar

    Great article, Molly! It perfectly captured those wonderful summers. I miss those days!

  16. avatar

    Yes!!! My oldest started summer swim in our neighborhood at 5 years old. Crying on the starting blocks (with a coach standing next to him) before he jumped in to swim. Now 13 years later he is heading off to swim in college in just a few weeks! Loved summer swim for fun, confidence and a life long hobby/passion.

  17. avatar
    Randi Spexarth

    What a great article! It rang true all the way through and tugged at my heart strings as my children’s swim-team experiences have been THE BEST! I’m nearing the end of this journey as my kids are aging out and I will miss every aspect of it! Well done Molly super article! ?

  18. avatar
    Judy Jewell

    Of course it’s all about the kids, but it is a win-win for the parents too. The parents get to spend time with other parents who have similar values. It takes a lot of parents to run a swim meet, so you work together. The swim parents we met became life-long friends. We even took our family vacations with other swim parents.