Early in a June swim meet between neighborhood rivals West Lake and Jones Creek, a dripping 10-year-old girl shuffles over to West Lake head coach Greg Young with wide-eyed uncertainty. "Did I get DQ-ed?" she asks.
"Don't worry about it," he says. "Just swim."
It is the mantra of the CSRA Swim League. Of the 86 swimmers on Young's roster, a considerable number of "year-rounders" take to the water competitively from September until July. Given the sometimes boiling pressures of Greater Augusta Swimming, the Aiken-Augusta Swim League, high school meets and the assorted trophies and scholarships available, this evening's meet at West Lake Country Club is a picnic.
Not to underestimate the level of competition here, but really, the atmosphere on the fringes of the pool is a picnic. Bored and anxious kids in uniform swimsuits sit on Lion King blankets in the shade, playing cards, reading books, decorating each other with waterproof markers, gulping soda and munching on hot dogs. It's unclear whether swim meet officials approve of such dubious conditioning practices, but clearly the principle of waiting an hour after eating before diving in does not apply here.
"The whole idea of summer league is to have fun," Young continues. "For year-rounders, it's just about having fun. For them this is up there with rec. league baseball."
And for the strictly summer swimmers, it's a nice opportunity to get their hair wet. What more can you ask for when it's still 93-degrees outside at 6 p.m.? For many of the youngest swimmers, this is the first taste of team competition and while it is a significant commitment - Young's group will compete in six meets this summer - it's a relatively low-pressure environment. Jones Creek head coach Philip Murray understands that his kids have other commitments. Event heats are shuffled throughout the evening to accommodate the actual number of team members present.
"Swimming goes against baseball, golf, camp and other activities, so a lot of them are juggling the whole summer," Murray says. "It's good - they're young. They can be exposed to a lot of things."
Clearly this is a new one for many participants in the girls 6-and-under 50-meter freestyle relay, the first event of the evening. Entry into the water is less a dive than an eyes-closed, arms-braced headlong fall. There is some flailing about, some clinging to the plastic lane divider ropes that run the length of the pool.
Later in the meet, a 6-and-under false start brings laughs from officials when the competition novices, unfamiliar with the horn signaling them to return to the starting blocks, have to be retrieved at mid-lane by older swimmers diving in after them.
"I was getting kind of hot anyway," says Murray with a grin after the impromptu dip.
Although there are some flashes of athletic prowess, these early races are more about a pat on the head from dad and a hot dog from mom. Cool body art also counts for something.
Several swimmers carry "Go" on one shoulder blade and team initials - "JCST" - on the other. One particularly confident young lady scrawled "Eat my bubbles!" across her lower back.
"Team spirit," says Linda Fisher, whose daughters Sarah and Emily are in their second season with West Lake. "It's just something they do before the meet."
There's no shortage of team spirit - the relaxed kind that you would expect from a place where kids remove their goggles so they can see if the pizza is pepperoni or extra cheese. If this were soccer, the meet would be "a friendly."
Nonetheless, as one event fades into another - relay, medley, freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke - and the older divisions take the blocks, a rivalry presents itself. A muscular guy in the 15-18-year-old, 50-meter freestyle whips the competition by several seconds; a 12-year-old girl hops up and down after taking first in a close race. From the edge of the pool, Young urges one of his girls - "HUP, HUP, HUP!" - to pull harder.
But it's still a distinctly summer type of rivalry. Although there's an aesthetic of competition, it's just not quite as intense as in other sporting seasons, much in the same way a summer radio song sounds pleasantly less weighty than the stuff you hear in the cold of February.
There are no scoreboards, no records to be broken, no scouts or state titles on the line.
As Young explains, it doesn't really matter whose final lap mad dash clinches a win for the team.
Summer league is "a chance for everybody to be the big dog." Or in this case, as he tells a novice swim parent cheering on her favorite waterlogged backstroker, "the big fish."
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