JOHN HUNT: Swimming Makes Big Impression On All

Kids In Chattanooga Area Swim League Redefine Hard Work & Dedication

Sunday, July 16, 2017 - by John Hunt

I must confess that I made a pretty big mistake a few weeks ago, but I’m here to admit it and to promise it won’t happen again.

This is my 38th year covering amateur sports and at times, I love it more than life itself.  Through the years, I’ve made countless dear friends with my involvement with athletes, coaches, officials, administrators and fans alike.  It’s almost like an extension of my own family.

We got the word following the Spring Fling that finances were tight at the Chattanoogan.com and that we might consider cutting back on what we had been covering.  Coming at the end of the year’s busiest season, that was a real relief as I badly needed a break from a hectic schedule.

My decision was to not cover summer swimming.

I must admit that I missed it at first, but as the weeks passed, it didn’t bother me as much.  Someone suggested last week that I might consider covering the Bill Caulkins City Meet and I gladly decided to do so.

I didn’t realize just how much I had missed it until I walked onto the pool deck at the Fort Oglethorpe pool Friday afternoon.

People are always asking what my favorite sport to cover is and I always reply that it all depends on the season.  Most of what I cover involves high school kids, but there are times when I get older folks as well with road races and triathlons.

In the Chattanooga Area Swim League, I get kids who are really young to those just graduating from high school and getting ready to move forward with their lives.

My first experience covering the summer swim league was back in the 80s when I was working for the Chattanooga News-Free Press.  Paul Schulz was the swimming writer and I got to go with him to Warner Park where my job was typing results at the City Meet.

Back in those days, we printed names, teams and times for all 16 places that scored, so as you might imagine, it was a real typathon where I didn’t get a chance to watch many races.

I got to cover it on my own in later years and I really got to create my own brand when I started writing for the Chattanoogan.com about 10 years ago.  After all, there was a real dead period from Memorial Day until early August when football started, so I used the summer league as something to keep me busy during the interim.

I love football and I’m really crazy about wrestling.  I’ve never turned down a good basketball game and there’s nothing more enjoyable than covering a really good baseball or softball game in the spring.

And now as I’ve gotten older, this summer swim thing has jumped on board too as one of my favorites.

It was like a family reunion when I got to the pool on Friday.  I received more hugs and handshakes than you can imagine with folks on all sides really glad to see me.  It really warmed my heart to be received with such love and genuine appreciation.

I was never big enough to be a football player and certainly never tall enough to play basketball.  I did earn a few letters as a wrestler, but swimming never crossed my mind as a sport I wanted to compete in as a participant. 

Granted, I spent many summer days growing up at the neighborhood pool and we swam from the minute the gate opened at 10 until they chased us home almost 12 hours later.  Those were really fun days and the memories we made were always positive.

Swimming is one of those sports where anyone can participate, no matter what your age or athletic ability.  I guess I enjoyed my most athletic success as a long-distance runner and even got into triathlons for a few years.

Swimming is one of those sports where you can certainly increase your aerobic capacity and you can get your heart rate as high as you want in a very short time.  And one thing I’ve learned in all of those years is that swimming takes a lot of practice.

Michael Phelps has probably swam a million laps in his lifetime, but repetition is the key and that’s what inspires me so much about these summer league kids.

Most of them are ready for a school break when they get to sleep late and not do much else, but that’s not the case for these summer swimmers.  Most teams have early-morning practices and I mean really early morning and they come back later in the day for another grueling workout.

There are some who are the most dedicated to doing whatever is necessary to be the best and there are others who just want to be part of the social aspect.  And whether they’re five years old and swimming for the first time or 18 and getting ready to graduate, they’re committed to a tough, tough sport.

It always amazes me to watch these kids at the city meet.  All of those long, hard workouts pay off as they make those distances look so easy.  As they always used to say when I was in school, if you’ve done your homework, test day can be a bunch of fun.

There are literally hundreds of kids who take part in the summer league and there are always some who catch my attention with their performances and the way they approach their sport.

The two who caught my eye the most this weekend were Dalton’s Roman Valdez and Fairyland’s Ellie Taliaferro.

Valdez is a talented 12-year-old who won all five of his events and broke records in virtually every one of them.  He is poetry in motion when leaving the starting blocks and nobody came close to beating him.

Taliaferro is a 13-year-old rising eighth grader at GPS who has been a high-point scorer for the Flash since she began.  I always pay close attention as she approaches the starting block as she has a really serious look on her face as she’s all business in the time from the bullpen to the starter’s horn.

And nobody competes any harder than this young lady.  She’s got a real tiger in her tank and she hates to lose more than anything in the world.  And as you might expect, it doesn’t happen very often.

While the older and more experienced kids really have the technique down and make it look a whole lot easier than it really is, the ones I really enjoy watching and get the biggest kick out of is the younger ones.

For some, stepping up on the starting block is like going off the high board.  These are the ones who opt for starting from the pool deck.  And like a young puppy who knows he must go in, but isn’t really sure how, so they have all kinds of interesting forms in entering the water. 

They close their eyes and create somewhat painful facial expressions, but they finally and cautiously take the big step and they’re on their way.  I’m sure that some even hold their nose before getting wet.

The city swim meet is a lot like a state wrestling tournament where there’s simply too much happening at one time to fully enjoy the full event.  And like a whirlwind where it’s wide-open action from beginning to end, it’s all over before you know it.

One thing I try to keep up with at the city meet is all the records that get broken.  It’s easy to do during the finals, but there are times when one gets reset during a preliminary heat.

That was the case on Saturday.

Keilah Holliman is a promising, up-and-coming five-year-old who swims for the Ooltewah Tidal Waves.  She was a record breaker after posting a time of 20.22 seconds in the 25 free in the 6 & under age group during one of the preliminary heats.

She ended up finishing second in the finals behind Signal Mountain’s Sydney Gordon with a time of 22.59 seconds, but the record belongs to her and I’m glad her mother emailed me that information.  I guess it’s better late than never, but I’m betting that young Keilah will be one I’ll be writing about for years to come.

Another summer swim season is in the books and as much as these kids hate to admit it, school will be cranking up in a few weeks.

I’ve learned another lesson this summer and that’s to follow your heart, no matter whatever else happens.

I can promise you that we’ll cover the summer league in 2018 like never before and that I’ll continue to be amazed and impressed.

And to all you kids who busted your tails all summer to be the best you could be, congratulations on another great season.

My hat’s off to you and I look forward to seeing you in summers to come.

(Email John Hunt at nomarathonmoose@gmail.com)


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