Olympics entice people to plunge into swim clubs

Swimming: Howard County's teams have waiting lists as the new indoor season starts for a sport that's increasing in popularity.

Howard At Play

October 17, 2004|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Whether a normal four-year cycle is playing out or a "Phelps effect" is in play, interest in competitive swimming in Howard County seems to be hitting new highs.

Both of the county's year-round, youth swim clubs - the Columbia Clippers and the Howard County YMCA Manta Rays - have waiting lists to join as a new indoor season starts. Even masters programs at the Columbia and Ellicott City swim centers are growing faster than usual.

"We're getting calls every day now," said Jeff Scrivener, who coaches the 340-member Clippers club for the Columbia Park and Recreation Association. "But we've run out of pool time and coaches."

The Clippers, said Scrivener, have a waiting list of about 70 and have recommended other organizations to parents trying to find space for their children.

At the YMCA in Ellicott City, which has one indoor pool, compared to four the Columbia Association-affiliated Clippers club uses, the waiting list has reached 200 youngsters, said Manta Rays coach David Benedictis.

The YMCA's list reached a comparable level a year ago for the first time, Benedictis said, causing the club to conduct tryouts this year to fill about 40 vacancies on its team for this fall and winter. But the list continues to grow, he said, and the Manta Rays unsuccessfully sought more pool time elsewhere.

"We see an increase in interest every four years, after each Olympics," said Michael Jacobson, who coaches a masters program that includes as many as 125 adults during winter months, mostly at the YMCA in Ellicott City but also at a smaller affiliate in Catonsville. "But this time, we started getting four or five e-mails a day during the Olympics from people wanting to know about our program. That's higher than usual, and in general, it's pretty interesting."

Jacobson, involved in swimming statewide, said other competitive programs throughout Maryland are experiencing similar increases in interest.

The bubble of Olympic interest normally fizzles as time passes. But he and others say interest has been bolstered this year by Michael Phelps.

The Towson swimmer, 19, who won six gold and two bronze medals in Athens in August, has definitely been a factor in boosting interest in the sport locally for several years, said Sue Mangan, assistant Clippers coach.

"The kids have all seen him compete - he's amazing - and talked with him," she said. "He's young, he's real, he competes in meets in Maryland, and you can walk up to him at a meet, hand him a pen and he'll sign your cap."

Added Benedictis: "Michael's success has people - you hear it at meets - saying now that Baltimore is a hotbed for swimming. He's brought us the notoriety. And you can use that to build on."

Scrivener said more interest from colleges in swimmers, especially female competitors, also is helping enrollment in youth programs.

Benedictis and Mangan agree on another point: Young swimmers are becoming more competitive.

"It just seems that more of them are taking swimming more seriously," said Benedictis, who has either competed or coached in the sport for about 30 years. "We even have some now who have given up other sports so they can compete year-round."

Mangan, involved with swimming for almost as long, theorizes that "kids today are products of baby boomers, who as a group are considered to be more aggressive, so the youngsters are more driven, too. It's only natural."

Which may help explain why masters programs are thriving as well. Jacobson's team at the YMCA plays host to its first competitive meet of the season Saturday, and is hoping to field more inquiries about joining.

And Mangan, who coaches a daytime women's masters program for the Columbia Association, said enough men and women have signed up to warrant the hiring of a part-time coach to lead a new evening program.

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