Local facilities attract hundreds to summer swim teams
● By J. Chambless
Competitors dive in at the beginning of their race at the Jennersville Y. (Photo by Chris Barber)
At the conclusion of the school year each June, young swimmers become the area’s dominant athletes. And in southern Chester County, those athletes and their sport are nurtured and trained at the Jennersville and Kennett Area YMCA and YWCA facilities.
Both Y’s have active teams for ages 5 to 21, and both serve significantly more than 100 swimmers each. The numbers continue to grow annually.
While Kennett and Jennersville have year-round programs for swim team competition, when June arrives, the enthusiasm and activity zoom to the forefront at outdoor pools, with intense training and practice sessions each week. That’s in addition to home and away meets which are held five or six times over the course of June and July.
The teams are immensely popular and invite kids of all ability levels. Like most sports, the speediest and most highly skilled of the swimmers win races. But there is room for just about any kid who can make their way up the length of the pool on their back and return on their belly with freestyle.
Kelly Burk, 43, who coaches the Kennett Y and Avon Grove High School swim teams, said she can often spot a swimmer’s talent at an early age, but sometimes swimmers don’t emerge as stars until they get into their teens. Among Burk’s accolades is that she coached the Avon Grove High School girls’ state championship team in 2017.
“Some kids are just born loving the water,” she said. Still, she added, physical growth patterns and school/social schedules can affect a swimmer’s route to greatness, and sometimes their talent emerges at unexpected times.
MaryAlice Miller, 42, who coaches the Jennersville Y team and was guided to that position five years go by her Shippensburg University friend, Burk, said age is a factor in training sessions. The intensity increases as the team members get older.
True to the Y’s mission of servicing healthy families and the exhibiting good sportsmanship, Miller said the younger members are welcome to take a day or two off every week, while the older ones generally stick to a heavier, four-day-a-week schedule.
The interesting thing, she said, is that the swimmers – even the youngest ones – have such a love for the sport that even when they have play dates and recreational time, they still are eager to swim training laps and lower their times.
Overall, Miller and Burk agree that training and coaching is more than urging children to jump in the water and splash to the other end of the pool as fast as they can. In fact, some of the aspects of leadership are complex.
Take the water temperature, for instance.
While many parents and recreational swimmers prefer a cozy pool temperature in the 80s, the team members generally choose and do better in cooler water. Far into the summer season, when the water gets warm, they sometimes seek a cooler environment.
“I take them to the inside pool, where the temperature is lower,” Burk said.
Other challenges include designing coaching strategies, scheduling meets, processing applications, dealing with weather (including thunderstorms), coordinating transportation to distant meets and preparing the pool for home meets.
Regarding strategies, Burk said she insists that kids work on getting their fine strokes right from the beginning. “I tell them, ‘Be patient. Speed will come,’” she said. She also insists that they learn how to race in various modes -- back, freestyle, breaststroke and butterfly, as well as solo and relays.
Miller, who has swimmers arrive as early as 6:45 a.m., has a distinct plan for each practice. Beyond the race preparedness, they must warm up and cool down for each practice, doing multiple laps before and after. She added that she likes to learn from other coaches and must keep up with current trends in training and equipment.
YMCA swimming meets, unlike school games, require the parents to drive the kids to the events. That involves meeting with other coaches in the region and planning a season that does not require long car rides until swimmers reach the level of advanced regional and state competition.
Overall, however, the coaches love their jobs and say they are energized by their own dedication.
Burk said she was once hospitalized for kidney stones the day before a qualifying meet at Bucknell University. Even in her weakened state, the next day she drove through snow to be with her team for the event – an effort that spurred her team on to greater effort.
There are other engaging aspects, too.
Burk said some of the kids think of her as a second mother. Many come to see her and thank her after they have outgrown the program.
Another thing is the selection of bathing suits. Burk and Miller both have contracts with Speedo (the bathing suit company), and they choose a new design every year. For Jennersville, the colors are blue and black; for Kennett it’s blue and green.
“I do try to get a suit that stands out,” Burk said.
Finally, when asked what the best part of the swimming program is, Burk thought for a minute and said, “When they win a race or lower their time, it’s great to see the smiles on their faces.”