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The Summer I Coached a Swim Team … of 328 Kids!

Walking out of my last summer swim meet, lugging a worn-down folding chair and over-packed swim bag, I felt a wave of sadness saying goodbye to a summer memory that had spanned some twelve years of my childhood. The familiar smell of chlorine and noise of the crowds is inseparably tied to nearly every summer memory that comes to mind. I wasn’t ready to let this time go, so I didn’t waste any time in applying to be an assistant coach for my very first swim team, the ACAC Dolphins. This team has since grown from a small neighborhood pool to a branch of the Atlantic Coast Athletic Clubs. So this summer I wanted to leave my own final mark on the pool and sport that I’ve spent my entire childhood with.

I was definitely a little nervous coming into a job where parents scrutinized the coaching style, and the swimmers relied on us to make their season fun yet successful. It’s a tough balance to master. And the first few practices definitely tested my patience for overexcited children and overprotective parents constantly hovering with endless questions. Overwhelmed by the 300+  members of the team, I was just hoping to make it out alive. But as the season forged on, I came to really love the kids, embrace their enthusiasm and figure out how to turn a bunch of hyperactive kids into a unified team.

With 328 swimmers on one team, ranging in age from 5 to 18, you wouldn’t think there would be a whole lot of team bonding. But you’d be wrong. If a dolphin mascot was spotted on a swim cap, you can bet a swarm of kids would be racing to claim the best spot alongside that lane. In one unforgettable moment, a group of 6-year old girls stood with us during senior relays, cheering “Go ACAC strangers!” for race after race. No matter the age difference, the simple ACAC logo across the suits united them as one.  Some people laughed at their eccentric cheer, but they never stopped or lowered their voices. They were just little kids excited to be part of a team and ready to show off some team spirit.

I came into the season expecting most kids not to take every race seriously, but my swimmers proved me wrong. There was never a moment when I was disappointed or frustrated in a child for not trying at a meet. Behind the starting blocks, I was always greeted by nervous, scared and excited faces, each one ready to try their very hardest in the upcoming meet. There was one 6-year old boy in particular who was swimming his first event ever, and all he wanted was to make it to the other end without stopping. When I approached him before his race, he turned to me, while still in a dive stance, and boldly assured me, “I’m going to do a dive ‘cause dives are fast.” Sure enough, he dove in and made it all the way down the pool, giving me a thumbs up at the end. It was those little moments that made the stress, long hours and unbearable heat worth it.

I think it’s safe to say I’ve learned more from my swimmers than I could dream of teaching them in 3 months. All 328 of them showed a love for the sport, a devotion to the team and a love for getting to do what they love – swim. Bursting with more exhilaration and genuine happiness than most adults I’ve come across, I envy their unwavering enthusiasm and optimism. These kids reminded me how to really live life to the fullest (something we need during endless nights at the ZSR). You’ve got to open your heart and dive in headfirst to all experiences, whether it be a 25 freestyle or new job opportunities, which, let’s face it, are in our near future. So if you ever have the chance to wrangle a group of 328 kids into a real team, don’t let the offer pass you by.

*Photography by Bess Hoskins

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