At 9 a.m. on Saturday, July 22, the Holmes Run Pool is a fête of tie-dye and teal. Anxious laughter abounds in anticipation of the beginning of the Division 15 Championship Swim Meet between the visiting Village West Vikings and the Holmes Run Mighty Hurricanes.
Descending the entrance ramp, I come upon an arena of collective enthusiasm; it echoes from the rows of poolside seats, where parents can clamor for their competing children. Behind the rows of seats are a series of wooden picnic tables covered with beach towels and early morning barbeque fare. Barefoot youths weave hurriedly through the grassy area, finding a high spot to view the next event on the shoulders of a taller teammate or pressed against the gray-shirted coaches near the edge of the pool. Everyone, from the loyal parents to the eager competitors, is galvanized with the communal energy that has sustained this summertime tradition since the creation of the Northern Virginia Swimming League in 1955.
The NVSL is comprised of over 14,000 swimmers and divers and is one of the oldest and largest swim leagues in the country. An overarching seeding committee places the 103 teams in the NVSL into 17 divisions based upon a variety of qualitative and quantitative factors. Each division is then sectioned into six teams of comparative strength, based upon time-in-water of the top swimmers in each team and with an emphasis on parity within each division. As such, the two top-seeded teams in each division are usually paired against each other in the season’s final meet. Today, both Holmes Run and Village West are prepared to defend their undefeated records of 4-0.
The announcer commences the event with a handful of comments to remind everyone of the gravity of today’s event. Considering the loudening of the crowd as the first swimmers take their mark, he doesn’t have to. Everyone in attendance is a fan. Most are family; sisters in sandals stand beside their peers and teammates to wait and watch. Or perhaps everyone just knows everyone else, and looks forwards to these gatherings of underwater rivalry.
But the meet is beginning. It kicks off with the 25 yard freestyle for boys eight and under, followed by a similar girl’s race. Girls and boys alternate events all morning, from the 38 individual races to the 12 100- or 200-yd. relays that close the meet. From the first headlong dive, it is apparent that as the home team, Holmes Run has the crowd’s overwhelming support, stirring pockets of encouragement and cheers that ricochet from the spectator’s area to the side of the shed adjacent to the pool. Officials with stopwatches line the width of the pool, and gaze fixedly at the swimmers as they dive in and with each succeeding event, post their times on five whiteboards nailed to the side of the shed.
Coming from some 48 families, the 91 swimmers on the Holmes Run team are partitioned into five age groups; eight and under, nine to ten, 11-12, 13-14, and 15-18. While size and athletic prowess are necessarily varied throughout the swimmers, a keen sense of egalitarianism pervades the competition and contributes to the team’s camaraderie. First, each swimmer is limited to two individual races and two relays, ensuring that the standout competitors don’t dominate the rally. Secondly, every first place position earns the same number of points, no matter if the swimmer is four years old or seventeen. During the individual events, five points are awarded to the fastest swimmer, three points to second place, and one point go to third, and these are totaled by team. For although daily practices stress the value of self-improvement via personal best times, the Holmes Run swimmers, just like their Viking counterparts, are competing for their teams. From what I can tell, the team is much more than a group of neighborhood athletes, but functions as a tightly-knit, inclusive unit whose solidarity and comradeship can stretch over a span of years. The companionship and almost familial bond the swimmers share is like a platform that they all hearken to stand upon. And yet it is the spirit of the summer tradition that makes such competition both invigorating and worthwhile; the tradition whose crux can be found in and around the neighborhood pool.
Indeed, the members of the Holmes Run Swim Team are more than just a collective of aquatic adherents – they are summer friends, unified by an affable hierarchy which the pool both perpetuates and nurtures. The swim season begins in early June, lasting for six to seven weeks, during which the kids take part in daily practices, swim meets, lunches, and supplementary trips to the movies, while their parents can enjoy their solitude and come out to support their kids at the high-stakes meets. The league swimmers remain active and learn to develop a love for the sport, harness their aquatic skills, and discover the importance of good sportsmanship. The teams showcase a variety of ages and talents, making for both a challenging and rewarding athletic experience.
Soon enough, the first 30 events have been swum with the score resting at 106-164, in Holmes Run’s favor. If the crowd knows it, they’re not letting it affect their support-giving, because even if the scores aren’t close, the races are. This is a significant aspect of the ongoing competition – it keeps the energy and sportsmanship high, and yet rewards the swimmers who reach the boundaries of the pool even a split second faster. The intensity seems to grow for the upcoming relays as the crowd understands the potential gravity of the altered scoring system. For each of the remaining 12 events, the winning relay team garners five points and the loser nothing. The Holmes Run Girls’ eight and under 100-yd. relay team starts things off strong, continuing their team’s tradition of constant progress by shattering the pre-existing record for their age group of 1:16. The races continue, with the Vikings winning the Boys 15-18 200-yd. Medley relay in a narrow victory. Medley relays showcase four different competitors swimming four distinct strokes; the backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle. And yet as it turns out, after a series of rapid-fire relays, the Holmes Run team increases their lead and secures a victory in the Championship with a final score of 236-166.
Retiring with an undefeated record of 5-0, the Holmes Run swimmers are a mirthful bunch, gathering poolside and tossing themselves, and their coaches, into the water. And in that moment, after letting forth a rousing cheer for their opponents, all the Holmes Run swimmers are on an equal plane, unified in their victory and reveling in their perfect record and show of solid sportsmanship. The swimmers will still practice in hopes to shine on an individual level at the Divisional Championships held Saturday, July 29, of which there were 17, one for each division. The two best swimmers in each event will have the chance to compete in the Individual All-Star Meet, which showcases the top 18 swimmers from the entire N.V.S.L. The All-Star Meet will be held on Saturday, August 6.