Meeting 78 years of tradition

Annual event brings Towson's Notre Dame students together

March 02, 2007|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN REPORTER

Sister Patricia McCarron says it almost always happens.

When the headmistress at Notre Dame Prep in Towson meets a former student, one of the first things the woman shares is whether she hails from a winning team in the school's annual "gym meet."

"It's the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat," McCarron said. "It stays with them."

During the school's 78th annual gym meet competition today and tomorrow, more than 500 freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors will participate in a tradition designed to foster teamwork, sisterhood and leadership - and a battle for bragging rights.

The girls have spent weeks preparing for a contest that pits class against class in four categories: singing, synchronized marching, dancing and aerobics. They choreograph every move and write their own lyrics to popular songs for the singing contest.

"It's cool when you can put 131 girls out there to perform with only three weeks of practice," said Catherine Damon, 18, who is this year's gym meet manager and a member of the senior class team. "It gives me a rush."

McCarron said the competition helps bridge social barriers, because it brings together girls who might not have the same classes or play on the same athletic team.

"Gym meet is an event, but it's also a way of life," she said. "It's about healthy competition and building relationships."

The teams must adhere to strict guidelines - spelled out in a rule book that is inches thick and hasn't changed much in eight decades - such as not exceeding the five-minute limit for their marching performance, and not making left turns.

Girls must wear socks that fold over and cover the ankles, white sneakers, white tunics, white bloomers. No makeup, no nail polish, no jewelry.

Points are deducted for rule violations.

With a budget of less than $2 per girl, the teams create costumes for their performances, make posters that are plastered across campus, and decorate their cars and lockers in bright colors.

The process of preparing for gym meet begins in the fall with the election of leaders, such as the gym meet manager, who oversees all aspects of the competition, and team captains. Just after winter break, the girls get down to the business of picking team colors and selecting themes - such as this year's Sophomores in the City, loosely inspired by the New York-based show, Sex and the City, and Freshmen Fairy Tales - which are incorporated into every element of gym meet.

Weekly practices begin about three weeks before the competition, and that's when nerves begin to fray and gym meet takes on a life of its own.

"My senior is a wreck," parent Kellie Cannon said yesterday moments after leaving a crafts store where she was picking up gym meet supplies for her daughter, Sarah. "I tell her, `If you lose, it's not the end of the world.' But you can just feel the nerves."

But for Damon, how her team fares will make the difference between sharing the experience of winning the coveted "silver cup" with her mother and sister - both Notre Dame Prep alumnae whose senior classes won - or joining her aunt, who never had the honor.

Damon said she hasn't lost sight of sisterhood and togetherness and all that good stuff, but she still wants to win.

"My aunt will never let it go. She laughs about it, but you can tell she feels something is missing," Damon said. "This is probably the biggest tradition we have. You talk to almost any alum, and they'll bring up the silver cup. I don't want to be one of those classes that never won."

Statistically, the odds are with the seniors. A program booklet details a history of senior winning streaks - if Damon's class wins this week, it'll be the 21st year in a row for the senior class.

According to a school spokeswoman, seniors have won 56 silver cups, according to the booklet. A freshman class has never won, sophomores have won four times and juniors took top honors 15 times.

Seated among a group of sophomores on the bleachers in the school's gym during this week's rehearsal, 15-year-old Amy Lopez said seniors win so often because most of them have been in three other gym meets.

"They've had so much practice," said Lopez, whose mother's senior class is among the 16 to graduate without a single gym meet win.

Though few alumnae care to dwell on tales of high jinks leading up to gym meet, a school administrator said she could recall a time when the girls might have gotten a bit out of hand. For example, legend has it that girls sometimes took to toilet-papering the yards of their rivals or stealing a team's mascot.

"We try to downplay that and promote sisterhood, but there was a spell in the late 1990s," said Chris Kaiser, dean of students and a graduate of the Class of 1968. "What they do today is called `signing,' which refers to hanging signs. We say to them to hang signs only on their own property."

Alex Del Barco, a 16-year-old sophomore, recalls that last year some students vandalized posters that other classes had made.

"We've been good sports so far this year," Del Barco said as she cheered on the junior class during rehearsal.

Cannon, a 1981 graduate whose senior class didn't win gym meet, said she considers losing a blessing.

"The day I lost, I was devastated," she said. "Believe you me, it's not that I wanted our class to lose."

But Cannon said losing helped her appreciate the spirit of gym meet and the unique way that the tradition helps young women connect with one another.

"When you win, it's easier," she said. "Would I rather have won? Yes. But I probably learned more by not winning."

gina.davis@baltsun.com

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