In the Beginning: The Benefits of Summer League

By Michael J. Stott

RICHMOND, Virginia, August 20. IT is the tail end of August and USA Swimming just sent its team to London in pursuit of Olympic gold, which wound up very successful with a total of 31 medals, including 16 gold. While all of Team USA did not medal a large number got their start with a local summer league team.

“It is where many children are first introduced to competitive swimming, maybe win early ribbons and then sign up for USA Swimming and begin their journey in year round swimming. A lot of teaching skills and drills take place at this level,” says Pine Crest head coach and 2012 ASCA Hall of Fame inductee Jay Fitzgerald.

John Flanagan last coached summer league in 1974 and has since been coaching Seniors, Age Group and Masters programs for CUBU in Northern Virginia. In June he sent eight qualifiers to Olympic Trials from his CUBU Tysons training site.

“We can't exist up here without summer league. It is in every neighborhood; 95 percent of our team (1700 CUBU swimmers) comes from there,” he says. “There are probably 12-13,000 winter swimmers within a 40-mile radius of here.”

Need proof?

“The DC area has the largest summer league population in the world. It is an industry up here,” Flanagan says putting the number at 50,000 participants.

Given that there are 17-six division teams in the Northern Virginia Swimming League (15,752 registered swimmers for 2013), 89 teams in the Montgomery County Swimming League, 40 in the Prince-Mont league and two country club leagues among others, he's probably close opines NVSL's Keenan Goldsby.

“All I know is, it is a big deal. When Janet Hu (16-year-old four -time NAG record holder) goes to a summer league meet, she means business,” says Flanagan. He also notes that last year Olympic champion Katie Ledecky made her 100 meter free Olympic Trial cut in a USA Swimming sanctioned summer league meet.

While summer league may serve as a farm system for USA clubs that was never part of the larger design.

“Not every kid is going to set records but in summer league every kid has an opportunity to feel good about the experience, learn about swimming and enjoy competing individually at his own level and as a part of the team,” says Anne Nelson Morck, veteran team administrator and former president of the 19-team, 3000 swimmer Richmond, Va. James River Aquatic Club. “When coaches connect with children as individuals who have something to contribute in their own way, it reaches them at their core and they learn the value of being part of something that is wonderful.”

Whether it is for a 260-plus member club like Southampton Recreation Center in Richmond or the 82-swimmer squad in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. the benefits for child, coach and parent are remarkably similar. For Lindsay Barksdale and Teryn Falkingham at Mammoth Lakes the challenges are immense. Consider: most of their meets are against year round programs, one-way travel to meets can exceed five hours. Meager winter training in 2012 was held two hours per week in a three-lane, 19-yard pool. Last May Mammoth Lakes conducted a number of practices in snowstorms and endured cold deck temperatures.

That said the coaches love the enthusiasm of parents and swimmers.

“In my five years coaching MLST, it has been really fun seeing our team come together and improve,” says Barksdale. “We have a very young team with lots of strong 10 and unders. Last year our oldest boy was only 12. We have few 13 and over swimmers and even fewer 13 and overs who attend meets. However, having a young team means they all learn together, compete together and grow with one another.

“We take a lot of pride in doing well against year round programs. Our parents use the travel meets as family vacations. Many are dedicated strokes and turn judges and we often bring more of them than any other team,” says Barksdale.

As for benefits, Barksdale cites fitness, fun and water safety for the swimmers, camaraderie for the parents, an active generational athletic bond with the town and employment and community connection for the coaches. Fitzgerald will second the coach benefit.

“Summer league swimming is a perfect place for a young coach starting out to learn if they can teach and motivate young swimmers. That first season hooked me,” he says.

After five years at the Country Club of Virginia in Richmond, Fitzgerald gave up his journalism aspirations and opted for a career that transported him through the storied programs at the Cincinnati Marlins and Santa Clara Swim Club before docking at Pine Crest.

Yet, having a successful summer league team requires more than just ebullient staff and swimmers.

“First and foremost, a team must have strong support from the organization it represents. Funding and facility are critical but the pool doesn't have to be state of the art. For years we ran our program on a shoestring in a 1950's era facility, but did so because of a strong parental commitment,” says Morck.

In her 15 years as a team and league administrator, Morck posits that programs fail due to lack of commitment.

“It starts with a well-organized parent volunteer base. The program director must have the ability to know which jobs are key and match them with people who possess the skills and personality for those jobs. After key jobs, other needs are broken down into manageable parts so as not to overwhelm the volunteers.

“Essential to all of this is the perception that being involved is important and fun. If parents perceive that being involved is a burden, they will find any and every excuse not to volunteer. If they see others enjoying their involvement and having fun, everyone will want a part.

“Chemistry and commitment of coaches is critical. Coaches set the tone and make or break the experience. Careful consideration when hiring can result in a coaching staff with complementary skills. We found that having a great technician or two, a creative mind who makes it fun and an assortment of nurturers made for a dream coaching staff.”

Team philosophy guides coach and volunteer efforts at Southampton.

“It is 'fun, fitness and competition' — in that order,” says Morck. It was not uncommon for her club's swimmers to stay with the program for 13 years or more.

“In order to win the league title, you need well-trained athletes who perform above and beyond their previous performances at the end of the season. You need a team that values group success over that of its individuals, a little luck and swimmers who are excited about swimming,” says former Southampton coach David Stott. For Barksdale and Stott much of that excitement has come from fun.

And few do fun quite like Southampton. Beginning in 1994 under then coach Stott the Swordfish began introducing a seasonal theme to accompany the training and competition. Outrageous and season-long activities evoking mythical characters and/or popular culture such as Banana Power, Burn Baby Burn, international travel and Mission Impossible created a climate of can do, fellowship and fast swimming.
Coach Stott would not trade any of Southampton's success (17 league championships in the last 18 years) for life lessons learned.

“Summer swimming is not about victories, championships and trophies,” he says. “These are things that motivate us to do our best, but they are ultimately unimportant compared to the teamwork, the sportsmanship, the camaraderie, the sweat, the difficulties overcome, in sum, the learning.

“There exists in a summer swim season an infinite number of teachable moments and endless room for improvement so that, ultimately, it matters not whether you win or lose, nor how you played the game, but THAT you played the game and that you love the sport enough to play again next season.”