Listen to Austin 360 Radio

City's summer swim team program gives kids a taste of competition, lots of fun

Pam Leblanc, Fit City

Staff Writer
Austin 360

For sisters Kate and Sophie Knifton, summer in Austin means one thing: swimming.

Not the loll-on-a-beach-blanket, float-on-a-foam-noodle sort of swimming, mind you. We're talking coach-on-deck, laps-in-a-lane, swim-meets-on-the-weekend kind of swimming, as served up by the City of Austin's Neighborhood Swim Team Program for more than 30 years.

Last year 1,035 Austin youths — up from 983 the previous year — registered for the city's summer swim team program. Participants get a taste of competitive swimming but, more importantly, are exposed to the lifetime benefits of the sport, says Donita Grinde-Houtman, aquatics program coordinator for the Austin Parks and Recreation Department.

"Personal improvement is stressed over the winning aspect, and we want (the swimmers) to develop self-confidence that bleeds into other areas of their lives," she says. "It can be a springboard for those who really want to go on into competition, but it's also relaxed enough for children not to feel intimidated."

For Kristin Knifton, the girls' mother, the program offers a structured and healthy way for her daughters to burn off some of that sizzling summer energy that can sap parents' time and patience.

"It's fantastic," she says. "This gets them to the pool, and they see their friends. It gives them good experience with competition and learning how to get better and be coached."

Swimmers ages 5 to 17 hone their skill in the four competitive strokes — freestyle, backstroke, breast stroke and butterfly — with practices Monday through Friday for six weeks. Practice lasts an hour at most; younger children get more breaks.

Swim meets take place each Saturday starting June 18 and culminate with the Texas Amateur Athletics Federation regional meet at the Lee and Joe Jamail Texas Swimming Center on July 16. There, the budding swimmers get to dive off the same starting blocks that University of Texas greats like Aaron Peirsol and Ian Crocker once used.

Top finishers at regionals are eligible for the Summer Games of Texas in Waco July 28-31, and those who medal at the state meet qualify for a national meet held every other summer. (Kate and Sophie both qualified last summer for the 2011 national meet in San Diego.)

"It's a nice level of intensity," Knifton says. "They can take it seriously and be competitive, but they also put a great emphasis on sportsmanship."

It'll be the sixth year for Kate, 10, a fifth-grader at Gullett Elementary, to swim with the Ramsey Redfish. "It's really fun to go to swim meets," she says. "It's fun cheering for your team."

It'll be the fourth year for her sister Sophie, 8, a third-grader at Gullett. "I like being in the water," she says.

Some swimmers in the program go on to swim at the high school or collegiate level. A few, including 19-year-old Mariah Holmes, a student at Sam Houston State University, have returned as adults to coach in the program.

"That's what I'd look forward to all throughout the school year," said Holmes, who swam with the Dick Nichols Devil Rays for 11 years. "I loved it, everything about it. I met some of my closest friends through it, and we swam with each other all our lives."

One swimmer, Tom Nelson, 46, spent five years racing with the West Enfield Water Moccasins as a kid, and now helps run the Austin Parks and Recreation Department as division manager.

"It gets them interested in the competitive aspect of swimming, but even more so it gets them interested in swimming in general," he says. "That leads to a healthy lifestyle as they get older."

The start of the 2011 season is almost a month away, but the Knifton girls are ready to dive in now.

They ventured to Northwest Pool last week, hoping to dip their toes in the water and start practicing, but a freak cold front kept them at pool's edge.

Still, they're signed up for swim team and ready to jump in come the first day of practice. They'll be leaving the beach blankets and foam noodles at home.

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994

If you go ...

Registration for the City of Austin's Neighborhood Swim Team program is $70, plus $10 for an optional T-shirt. Participants must be able to swim 25 yards continuous freestyle and backstroke. The program is offered at the following pools: Balcones, 12017 Amherst Drive; Brentwood, 6710 Arroyo Seco; Canyon Vista, 8455 Spicewood Springs Road; Dick Nichols, 8011 Beckett Road; Dittmar, 1009 Dittmar Road; Dove Springs, 5701 Ainez Drive; Givens, 3811 E. 12th St.; Kennemer, 1032 Payton Gin Road; Murchison, 3700 North Hills Drive; Patterson, 1400 Wilshire Blvd.; Ramsey, 4201 Burnet Road; Reed, 2600 Pecos St.; Rosewood, 1182 Pleasant Valley Road; Stacy, 800 E. Live Oak St.; West Enfield, 2000 Enfield Road. Registration is limited to 120 swimmers per team. For more information, call the Aquatic Office at 974-9331 or go to www.ci.austin.tx.us/parks/swimteam.htm .