Disdaining pools, swimmers take their skills to the river

Tradition: Hundreds of teens compete in meets each summer in the Severn, as many parents did.

July 31, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

There's something defiant in the way Dylan Roche dives into the swimming lane, cups his hands in a fast-moving freestyle and kicks up a flourishing splash. And that something has nothing to do with the 17-year-old's form.

Roche is one of hundreds of Anne Arundel County children and teenagers who swim competitively each summer in the Severn River. That might not sound contrarian, until you consider that few other leagues in Maryland venture outside treated community pools.

In parts of some state rivers, swimming is not advised. Even in rivers posing little danger, a public accustomed to reports of toxins, algae and fish kills often chooses not to take a dip. But the Severn swimmers come from different stock - many of their families grew up on the river, and live there still. They refuse to give up on it.

FOR THE RECORD - A photograph that appeared on Page 5A in Saturday's editions of The Sun was incorrectly credited. The photo, which showed three children diving into the Severn River for sprinting practice, was taken by Leah Kuritzky.
The Sun regrets the error.

"The river has been a huge part of my childhood and a huge part of my adolescence," Roche said. "I couldn't imagine a summer without the river."

Roche has grown up in the small community of Linstead on the Severn. His team, the Linstead River Rats, will test their strokes today at the Severn River Swim Association's championship meet at Ben Oaks.

The six-team swim championship will feel familiar to their parents - many swam against the same surnames in a river league that has seen few changes in decades, despite the rapid growth engulfing suburban Annapolis.

The league dates to at least the 1960s, when Roche's mother, Linstead native Marjorie Tschantre, swam against teams such as Sherwood Forest and Round Bay.

In the late 1980s, Linstead's team disbanded because of a lack of interest. But eight years ago, Tschantre reformed the team on the banks of the Severn, about a mile from Ritchie Highway and close enough to Baltimore-Washington International Airport to see the planes glide by.

Even now, team members are family or close to it. Dylan's sister, Rachel, is also a River Rat; their cousin, Erin Kennedy, is a coach; and the 23 other swimmers include several pairs of siblings.

"I swam it when I was a kid, and that's what made me want to go out and do it," said Tschantre, who is president of the Severn River Swim Association. "It's a neat thing that I grew up with that I wanted my children to have."

Competitive river swimming is still novel to many riverkeepers across the state. Several riverkeepers, who are hired by river associations to monitor streams, said they knew of no such league in their areas.

"In the Washington, D.C., area, you can't do it even if you wanted to," said Ed Merrifield, the riverkeeper for the Potomac River. "It's not allowed."

Added the South River's riverkeeper Drew Koslow: "Unfortunately, there are risks associated with swimming in our rivers now."

To guard against those risks, some communities in the Severn River league pay for weekly water-quality testing to supplement the county's water monitoring. Sally Hornor, a biology professor at Anne Arundel Community College, conducts the tests - she calls it "Operation Clearwater" - and posts results on the Web.

Sherwood Forest, which has the league's largest team at its summer camp for neighborhood children, had to move some river meets to its pool last month because of high bacteria counts. Though Hornor said she never pinpointed the source, the community lowered the counts by removing a net it uses to trap sea nettles. The nettle net was clogged with algae, which was hampering the river's circulation.

In light of such inconveniences, Sherwood director William Moulden acknowledged that it would be easier to hold all meets in the pool. But, he said, that would never happen on his watch. Moulden fondly remembers a childhood spent swimming in the Severn, and the triumphant day when he was old enough to pilot a boat alone to Annapolis City Dock to get a cheeseburger.

He said the Sherwood swimmers, who number in the hundreds, share his appreciation of the river's boundless opportunity.

`A huge playland'

"The river isn't dirty to them," Moulden said. "It's not unhealthy to them. It doesn't pose a threat to them. It's a huge playland. The river represents freedom. There are so many rules you have to follow to be in the pool. There are very few rules in the river."

But there are some rules - river swimmers must pass a deep-water test and stay within designated areas. A lifeguard is on duty at all times. The teams don't swim in thunder and lightning. As for the currents and the tides, Tschantre said, the Severn is fairly calm and free of the strong pulls found in the ocean.

Aside from the bacteria testing, river swimming is fairly low-maintenance. Organizers arrive before practices to set up the lanes. Swimmers dive in from the beach's pier, and coaches add plywood boards so swimmers can turn and push off. In between after-practice games of Sharks and Minnows, the kids might mention something about tides or water clarity-a sign that they have taken in an ecology lesson during practice.

Jon W. Robinson, vice chairman of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club, said he worries about the safety of Maryland's rivers - he often suffers from ear infections after kayaking in the Potomac. Still, he said, he's heartened to learn of an area taking an interest in its resources.

"It's a sign that people are trying to take back the river from the polluters," he said.

How long will it last?

In Linstead, Dylan Roche and his friends fear their tiny team won't last beyond this weekend. The two coaches are off to college this fall, the current swimmers are getting old enough for summer jobs, and the new kids moving in prefer pools.

But like the generations who swam before them, the River Rats vow never to give up on their river, no matter what becomes of the team.

"A lot of people can't get over the fact that we swim in the river. I couldn't imagine swimming in a pool," Roche said. "There might not be an organized swim team, but we will always be down here."

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