Bel Air swimmers brave the elements

In spite of cold, against a gust, into the water

December 05, 2007|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN REPORTER

For members of the Bel Air Athletic Club swim team, practice begins in a huddle around a space heater spewing warmth into a canvas tent next to an outdoor pool.

With the air temperature at 42 degrees and the wind howling, five young swimmers lifted the tent flap and plunged into the pool on Monday afternoon. They swam laps in the 77-degree water before scrambling back to the tent, toweling off, and running 75 yards to the clubhouse, where they did land exercises.

"That run back inside after practice in a wet suit is the worst," said Tori Lackey, a 14-year-old Forest Hill resident. "This is crazy. Swimming outdoors in December would not be my first choice. It's really a challenge."

The team, which regularly travels to competitions across the Northeast from October to March, usually conducts workouts in a dome-covered, Olympic-size outdoor pool nearby. But repair work to underground pipes has delayed set-up of the dome and forced the team to practice in the smaller, adjacent pool that usually closes for the season in October.

The unseasonably warm autumn enabled the extended outdoor schedule, said Gary Mann, the club's swimming coach. Now that the late-fall chill has set in, pool time has been cut back, but the swimmers insist on continuing their workouts so they can be prepared for winter meets.

"We won't be as ready for the next meet if we don't swim," said Danielle King, 14, of Bel Air.

Says Mann, "The choices are outside practices or no team."

The dome could be up by week's end. But for now, practice at the club consists of swimsuit-clad youngsters swimming and running through the cold while parents sit nearby, bundled in winter wear.

Jack Van Roden, 17, of Fallston did not bother with a towel or shirt. He made the run for the clubhouse in his swim trunks and sandals.

"There is no way to make it better," he said. "A towel won't help. I just run for it."

Few have watched the weather as closely as Mann. While construction crews relaid pipes, his swimmers - with parents' blessings - voluntarily practice outdoors.

Emily Hoyt, 9, did outdoor laps last Friday to prepare for a meet in Annapolis the next day. Every few laps, she stopped to reassure her mother, who sat poolside in a winter coat.

The unseasonably warm autumn served the swimmers well.

"It really was not that bad, until about two weeks ago," Tori said.

As the temperature dropped, Mann cut water time in half and put more emphasis on land exercises.

"At 50 degrees, they can still swim some," he said. "Below 40 degrees, not at all. These are quite talented swimmers, but it is difficult to swim vigorously when you are breathing cold air."

Parents layered in fleece with wool hats, scarves and gloves watched from the sidelines Monday, offering encouragement.

"I get cold watching even with a jacket on," said Sally Hechter of Fallston, whose two sons swim competitively. "They do their best to keep the pool warm, and they put a heated tent next to the pool. But, basically, this is all about real dedication."

Swim practices start before school, as early as 6 a.m., and continue after school into the evening.

"This is year-round team swimming, committed and competitive," Mann said. "The grass-roots level of competitive swimming is the neighborhood pool."

To stay in shape, the most ardent swimmers do land exercises, run on an indoor track and lift weights.

"Our top group does doubles - they swim in the morning, go to school and come back to swim in the afternoon or evening," Mann said.

As it became increasingly difficult to keep the pool temperature above 80 degrees in recent days, Mann scheduled outdoor practice on a day-to-day basis. But often his teams insisted on water time.

"The idea is to use common sense and not impair anyone's health," Mann said.

Lap swimming is a critical part of preparation for a Dec. 14 meet at the University of Pittsburgh, the swimmers said. So midafternoon Monday, Danielle and four other swimmers checked the lifeguard's clipboard for the latest water temperature. It read 77 degrees.

"We try to keep the pool as warm as possible, but that's pretty impossible in this weather," said lifeguard Matthew Scales.

Mann said, "Water temp at 77 in early summer, that's cold, even with the air at 80 degrees. With air temp at 50 degrees, the water feels very cold."

Winds that earlier had gusted up to 40 mph had moderated but still were blowing open the tent flaps. Inside, teammates in swimsuits and goggles circled the heater for one last minute. Then, one by one, they took the plunge.

"It's swimmable but certainly not comfortable," Mann said. "We teach commitment, and the top groups need the top level of commitment."

The swimmers launched into their routine - freestyle, butterfly, back stroke and breast stroke. Each swimmer logged 16 laps or 400 yards. Under optimum conditions, they would rack up 3 1/2 miles in the water.

"At least they can swim," said Scales, dressed in several layers and watching from the poolside tent. "I won't have to go in after them."

When they finished laps, the swimmers jumped out of the water, grabbed towels and ran back to the space heater.

"These kids ... are dedicated and their parents are as dedicated behind them," said Marcy Gorman, the club's general manager.

Despite today's forecast for snow, Gorman said she has no doubt some swimmers will want to practice in the outdoor pool.

"We call them our swim kids, but this season, they are proving that they are athletes."

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