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Swim Frenzy

It’s Big Meet season, and with 20,000 young competitive swimmers in Diabloland, it’s wild out there.


photography by Philip Kaake

Early in the morning, the neighborhood surrounding the San Ramon Olympic Pool complex is generally peaceful. But this is August in swim country, and by 8 a.m. on a Saturday, every parking spot within four blocks of the pool is taken, mostly by SUVs covered with colorful graffitilike scrawls. The neighborhood’s usual serenity is punctured by bagpipes, children’s cheers, and the occasional blast from an air horn.

We thought we were coming to a swim meet, albeit the Big Meet, the season-ending championship among the nine Valley Swim Association teams. But, as we approach the gates of the complex, it’s obvious that the association is just as committed to being enthusiastic on land as it is to being successful in the water.

Barbecue grills the size of canoes are set up surrounding the pool, along with espresso machines and chafing dishes, a smoothie stand, and a booth selling tie-dyed T-shirts. There are more balloons and banners than a Thanksgiving Day parade, and more young bodies sport tattoos (albeit temporary ones) than at a rock concert.

The Marlins of ClubSport San Ramon are decked out in neon green wigs and feather boas. The San Ramon Aquacats have used black markers to give themselves feline noses and whiskers. Several overcaffeinated grown-ups who belong to the Round Hill Country Club team have donned red wigs, black tights, and black capes. One, who calls himself “Flame Man,” prances around carrying a faux Olympic torch. What in the name of Richard Simmons is going on here?

You can blame meet director Ken Harmon and the swim association board members, who annually do an exceptional job coordinating 500 volunteers so that more than 1,500 swimmers, ages four to 18, can compete in 82 events over two days.

As if the thrill of victory (and associated ribbons and trophies) isn’t enough to evoke passion from the estimated 5,000 in attendance at the meet, the board in 2007 inaugurated a new trophy, the Most Spirited Team Award. Judging from the decibel level on this Saturday morning, it seems that everyone wants to take home this particular chunk of hardware.

“Anytime you can increase perpetual awards and recognize team spirit, that’s a win-win,” Harmon explains.

The competitors are sufficiently motivated: Nine meet records are set in two days. But, to most of the young swimmers, winning is of little consequence.

“I swim for the fun of it,” says Del Amigo Dolphins member, 10-year-old Elise Ericson, her face paint nearly faded after 50 yards of chlorinated water. “It’s about having fun and making new friends.”

Now that’s the spirit!


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