This morning, the parents of some 4,400 swimmers will roll out of bed and check the sky. I will be one of them. Today is the summer finale of the Central Maryland Swim League. The team from our neighborhood pool, along with 41 teams from Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll and Howard counties and Baltimore City, will scatter to seven pools for the last big meet of the summer swimming season. Rain is in the forecast.
Lightning stops an outdoor swim meet. Thunder stops a meet. But rain does not necessarily stop a meet -- as anyone who stood in last Saturday's "surprise showers" knows. Last Saturday it rained, the kids kept swimming, and the parents stood on the edge of the pool holding stopwatches and getting soaked.
A swim team is yet another form of organized sports that parents think is good for their kids. There do seem to be benefits to the experience. A team is composed of kids who range in age from about 6 to 18 and when kids that age hang around together they make friends, learn card games and discover which pizza delivery outfit offers bonus pies.
Parents like putting their kids on a summer swim team because the experience teaches kids how to swim, gets the kids out of the house and teaches kids the importance of practicing.
The major drawback to being a swim team parent, however, is you can't merely pontificate about the value of hard work. For six Saturdays in the summer, you gotta go to the pool and sweat.
The kids do the swimming and the parents do the clerical work. Some big pools have electronic devices that take care of the bookwork, but at most pools the parents time the racing swimmers. Parents record the times on cards. Parents run the cards to the scoring table. Parents tally results, and give ribbons to the swim team coach -- usually a college kid who serves as both taskmaster and best buddy to the kids -- to present to the kids.
Another responsibility of the parents is keeping track of the plastic goggles the kids wear when swimming. Goggles are tossed, twirled, broken. Goggles come and go, but mostly they go. One Saturday morning this summer, my kids had lost or broken two pair of goggles before the meet had even started.
When the swim team travels to a distant pool, the major responsibility of the parents is to drive there without getting seriously lost. Theoretically, the more years you have been driving to faraway pools, the easier it is not to get lost. But the trouble is, swim teams can change divisions from year to year. When a team changes divisions, its opponents change. And that means that early on a Saturday morning a cocky veteran swim team parent can drive to a pool in Catonsville, only to realize that this year the pool he is supposed to be driving to is in Woodlawn.
The worst job a swim team parent can get is being the "stroke and turn judge." This person has to walk along the side of the pool making sure swimmers are obeying the rules. If a swimmer makes an improper kick, or a faulty turn, the stroke and turn judge gets the unenviable task of "DQing" or disqualifying the kid. Young kids have been known to cry, older kids fume, and parents protest, when a judge DQs a swimmer. One Saturday this summer, the stroke and turn judge from our team DQed her own kid.
The presiding authority of the swim meet is the man dressed in white, the guy with the starting gun, the league official. Swim meet officials are like bosses. Some wield power in an easy-going, yet efficient, style. Others feel the need from time to time to remind all that they are in charge by enforcing their favorite rule. The worst are the sermonizers who, for example, order the swimmers to the starting blocks, then, with the attention of all focused on themselves, decide to talk about the philosophy behind getting a good start.
Even though I have been a swim team parent for about seven years, I have yet to master the etiquette. Swim team parents are supposed to cheer in a "positive," well-mannered way. I do OK cheering for other people's kids, especially the 6-year-olds, as they wiggle through the water. But when my own kids swim I drop the Fred Rogers routine and sound like Vince Lombardi. I hoot. I holler. I bellow.
Usually it is the kids on the swim team who bring me back into line. They don't say anything, but their demeanor says, "Chill out, pops." Which brings me to the main appeal of belonging to a swim team. Parents may drive the cars and punch the stop watches, but basically this is a tribal affair, and the kids rule.