Eat My Bubbles (Click here for link to online story)
Poolside early on a sunny and warm Saturday morning, that’s what a ten-year-old swimmer is writing across her teammate’s back with a thick black Sharpie. As trash talk goes, it’s pretty tame. But it’s the smack down of choice in the developmental Naperville Swim Conference (NSC). It’s meant more to exhort than to insult.
Still, there are serious bragging rights at stake. On this particular morning, the
Farmstead Flying Fish are taking on their biggest frenemies and rivals, the
Naper-Carriage Hill Cardinals. The neighborhoods flank opposite sides of
Naper Boulevard, so a lot of the swimmers go to the same schools.
Across Naperville, it’s the same scene on Saturday mornings in June and July at the neighborhood pools. Jammed parking lots. Vibrant sports umbrellas, tents and beach towels crowding the pool decks. Dads and moms working concession stands and grills to serve up breakfast sandwiches. Shrieks, shouts and splashing as horns start each race. Kids from kindergarten to high school writing their events on their arms and trying to scarf down more candy and doughnuts without their parents noticing. It’s such a perfect picture of summer that it’s impossible to see it without thinking, This is a good thing.
In all, each summer some 3,000 children on twenty-two teams take over their neighborhood pools to compete in the NSC. It is a recreational league run 100 percent by volunteers—almost all of them the swimmers’ parents. The teams compete at dual meets culminating with two championship meets known as the City and Classic. The former is for the fastest swimmers notching elite qualifying times. The latter is for everyone who wants to swim and loves a big party. This year the NSC is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. Tens of thousands of children have participated in and benefited from the summer recreational swim league over this fifty-year history.
Even for those of us who adore living in Naperville, it can be an eye-rolling embarrassment of bests. Best Places to Live, Best Places to Raise a Family, yada-yada-yada… But swim team families would probably agree you have to add it to Best Places to Perfect Your Backstroke By Age Twelve.
According to Dave Johnson, an official with USA Swimming (the national governing body of competitive swimming), the NSC is considered by many to be the largest summer recreational league in the country. Seven swimmers at the 2016 Olympic Trials got their start swimming in the NSC, including 2016 Olympian Kevin Cordes, who swam for the White Eagle Warriors and, later, Neuqua Valley High School and University of Arizona.
And while it’s impressive to have Olympian alumni, if you ask the conference leaders, kids and families why they return every year, they don’t mention the Olympics. Parents acknowledge that swimming can be a lifelong sport that provides fabulous exercise. But what they most often talk about is confidence.
“Summer swimming has been great for our daughter Sarah,” says Anne Kasprzak, whose ten-year-old has been swimming for Huntington Estates for three years. “She has not only become a better swimmer, but she has developed more self-confidence and self-esteem.”
Parents also point to the friends they and their children make. “It’s a unique environment that the teams are made up of neighborhood kids from ages four to eighteen,” says Steve Rodgers, president of the Farmstead Flying Fish and parent of three swimmers. “There is a benefit to interacting across age groups. Not only do the kids grow up together, the parents do too, resulting in lifelong friendships.”
If you’ve never tried swimming 100 yards as fast as you can, try it the next time you hit the pool. If you even make it half as far, you’ll see for yourself what Dave Fox, a parent of three swimmers with the Cress Creek Country Club Rebels points out. “Swimming has taught my children dedication and how to grind it out. Whether it is your child helping a relay team take first or getting a time drop in their favorite stroke, there are many ways to celebrate your child’s effort when they swim.”
While the conference is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, its roots go back even further. As early as 1937, the front page of the Naperville Clarion carried an article “City Champions Will Be Crowned at Swim Carnival.” A then-record 191 entrees were received to compete in fourteen events, requiring a pre-trial to accommodate everyone. Thus, citywide swim meets became an annual tradition.
But it took a visionary real-estate developer to elevate swimming to the municipal pastime. In the early 1960s builder Harold Moser was one of the first in the country to add community pools and tennis clubs to his subdivisions, and other developers followed suit. In some neighborhoods, like Farmstead, neighbors raised funds themselves and built their own pools. It naturally followed that as the population grew, neighborhood swim teams began competing against one another; in 1967 the conference was born. In 1968 the NSC became part of the two-year-old Naperville Park District and was under its umbrella until 2012. NSC currently operates as its own entity.
The NSC organizes meet schedules, conducts background checks for all coaches, provides ribbons, trains officials and helps smaller teams organize and oversees the Classic and City meets.
It is a machine. At a typical dual meet, some fifty volunteers spend the entire Saturday morning as timers, judges, scorers, concession workers, runners and wranglers for as many as 100 swimmers.
Yet, for all that effort, competition is secondary. “The conference is aimed at developing swimmers. The level of swim competition is not as important as learning how to swim well,” says Rodgers.
Even coaches of championship teams echo that sentiment. Ruthy O’Malley, head coach of the 2016 City meet champions the Saybrook Sharks, is emphatic. “Everybody swims, everybody wins! I learned that years ago from one of my coach mentors, Bob Strube. He would say, ‘We want great eighteen-year-olds, not great eight-year-olds,’” she recalls. “What matters most is the lifelong friendships, the swim team families, and the fun. I think if you asked anyone who has ever participated in the Naperville Swim Conference growing up as a swimmer, or as a parent, they will can look back and say . . . ‘This was a good thing.’”
Post Your Photos!
Past and present participants are encouraged by the Naperville Swim Conference to document its fiftieth anniversary by posting historic and current photos to social media using #NSC50.