SEARCY Temperatures outside may be dropping, but that’s no reason for kids in Searcy to stop clocking time in the pool.
For the Searcy-based Sharks Swim Team, the sport is a year-round event.
“People are really surprised when we have meets in the winter, and they’ll ask, ‘Are you swimming outside?’” said swimmer Erin McGuirt, 13.
The team was founded in 1972 as a summer-only team and now competes in both USA Swimming and Amateur Athletic Union competitive swim meets year-round. The team of around 50 includes swimmers from ages 5 to 18. Though the team practices at Harding University in Searcy, team members come from all over the area to participate, including Batesville, Rose Bud, Beebe and North Little Rock.
“Just in the last two years, we’ve really moved up,” Sharks head coach Chad Price said. “We’ve been able to increase our practice time from maybe four hours a week to eight. That’s no big deal for the little kids, but for the older ones, … they’re competing with people practicing 14 to 16 hours a week.”
Price is pleased with the progress he’s seen swimmers make during 2012 competitions. Seth Bailey, who competes in the 11- to 12-year-old division, won several events at the AAU National Championship, and McGuirt qualified for the USA Swimming Zone Championship in six events. Price points to Anna Walker, 17, as the best high school swimmer on the team right now. Last year, she qualified for the USA Swimming State Championships. Walker is set to graduate in May and plans to attend Harding University. But after graduation, she plans to swim just for fun and exercise.
Walker and McGuirt both recruited friends to join the Sharks this year after swimming got a popularity bump on the heels of the Summer Olympics.
“I really enjoyed that people starting talking about swimming,” McGuirt said. “I got to talk more about what I do with my friends.”
Price also noticed an enrollment bump after the Summer Olympics. This year, he had more young kids sign up than in years past. Though it may seem young for competitive swimming, Price said those who start between 7 and 8 years old have the best chance of sticking with the sport through school.
“If they start at 12 or 13, they feel like they’re already behind,” Price said.
While being able to say the team has had competitive success in the pool is great, Price said, the best bragging rights come from the successes his team has had outside the pool.
“We’ve had several of our kids have big success in college academically,” Price said. “We’ve got two right now attending Harvard, and another at the Air Force Academy. The ones who do well and learn dedication in the pool generally carry it over to the classroom.”
During weekly practices, assistant coaches work with younger swimmers as Price works with the state- and national-level swimmers. As he runs drills, the young swimmers joke with Price, always calling him by his first name.
“Chad is almost like a dad to all of us,” McGuirt said. “He yells and pushes us to do our best, but if someone is mean to us, he’s going to be right there on our side.”
Price sees it as a partial blessing that swimming doesn’t carry the same popularity weight as football or baseball. Since kids aren’t getting the attention at school like a starting football player might, Price says his swimmers learn to motivate themselves.
The team’s next big meet is set for Dec. 7 and 8 at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. The Sharks compete locally with teams from Cabot, Conway and several from Little Rock. Seeing the same kids at meets has allowed swimmers like McGuirt and Walker to make close friends with swimmers from all over the state. Though it’s friendly, McGuirt acknowledges that there are big rivalries between swimmers, and a competitive spirit. But she doesn’t mind a little competition. And she better get used to it. McGuirt has big plans down the road.
“I want to go to the Olympics,” McGuirt said. “Chad has a training plan worked up for me, and I definitely think I can do it.”
Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or firstname.lastname@example.org.