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Forming a team: City Swim gives Roanoke kids a 'chance to change their stars'
Sunday, June 30, 2013
Another summer and another season without competitive swimming.
That’s how Pamela Mack-Brown thought her daughter, Mackenzie Brown, would be spending her time off from school. The 9-year-old had just learned to swim the previous summer, and Mack-Brown figured no team would take such a novice. Then she heard about the City Swim Barracudas.
When Mack-Brown first approached Louis Tudor, the City Swim head coach, about Mackenzie joining the team, she told him her daughter wasn’t “a great swimmer.” Tudor told her the purpose of the team was to have everyone learn to become better swimmers and make friends in the process.
“The fact that she can be a part of something and don’t have to worry about being so competitive at this point, it’s about having fun and learning. It’s a learning experience for her,” Mack-Brown said.
Mackenzie, who’s learning different styles of swimming for the first time, said she is enjoying the season. Talking about Tudor, she grins.
“I like him,” she said. “He helps us, but he tells us to try.”
When Louis Tudor talks about swimming, he can’t help but throw in famous movie references.
He enjoys sports movies about underdogs such as “Rudy” and “We Are Marshall.” If the movie shows the unbeatable nature of the human spirit and surprises him, he’s a fan. After a lifetime of swimming, Tudor knows his latest project, like his favorite movies, is full of the unexpected.
For Tudor, comparing his team to famous sports movies keeps him motivated. As a coach, he’s not worried about winning medals or getting first place. He just wants the swimmers to get better. For many of the kids, it’s their first time ever swimming in a pool.
Tudor doesn’t seem to mind teaching the kids how to manage their breathing and swim without wearing themselves out. He doesn’t get impatient teaching kids the backstroke for the first time and he doesn’t get angry when he has to reteach it again the next practice.
“It is a task, there is a learning curve here,” Tudor said. “It’s going to be bumpy.”
As he coaches the team through each practice, which on some days can have as many as 120 swimmers, the advice he gives to the swimmers reflects the purpose of his new team.
“We’re not trying to go fast,” Tudor said. “We’re just trying to finish.”
Perhaps no one enjoys the summer swim season as much as Tudor. Not the kids who are learning to swim for the first time, or the other adults who volunteer their time and energy to help the swimmers learn.
Tudor, less than a year removed from making a major career change, said he’s been surprised about the team since the first practice.
“I just love coaching this sport so much, and there’s so many young people out here who came out here. And we’ve seen a lot of faces, kids’ smiles on their faces, and it’s really even a lot different than I thought it would be,” he said.
During each of the team’s meets, a curious thing has happened to Tudor. As he walked around the pool, watching over his team, parents from other teams approached him, not only to wish him good luck, but to thank him for having a hand in bringing this team to the children of Roanoke.
While he appreciates their kindness, Tudor isn’t coaching for accolades or congratulations.
“This is not a popularity contest, this is not a beauty contest, this is not for aesthetics,” Tudor said. “We’re here to help this neighborhood, and we’re going to do that.”
The story behind the City Swim Barracudas dates back roughly 40 years.
It’s a story about a 6-year-old girl in Florida, raised by a single mother, who approached her older sibling’s swim coach, Harry Meisel, and asked if she could swim for the Blue Dolfins, too.
The child was Annette Patterson. Meisel let her swim for free, covered the cost associated with joining the team and paid for her swimsuit, which her mother knew she would not be able to afford.
“It really changed her life,” Patterson’s mother, Maureen Gasink said.
Today, Patterson is paying the kindness forward. The same compassion her coach showed when she was growing up is now being extended to kids in Roanoke who have never before had the chance to be a part of a swim team.
“Her passion with this is seeing these children that need a boost, they need some help getting them into swimming, they’re competing against themselves,” Gasink said. “It’s their chance to change their stars.”
Patterson is the head of a nonprofit called the Advancement Foundation. The foundation has been the driving force behind the creation of the Barracudas, with Patterson being instrumental in getting the team together to compete in the Roanoke Valley Aquatic Association at the eleventh hour.
The Barracudas missed the RVAA registration deadline in the fall. But its swimmers have been able to compete this summer by registering as part of the Read Mountain Swim Team, and their results are included with Read Mountain’s in the meets. Patterson said she doesn’t see this as putting other teams at a disadvantage.
“They’re just learning to swim,” Patterson said. “They’re not bringing a lot of points to the table.”
Founded in 2007, the foundation has worked to gather resources from the community in order to help improve the lives of the poor. In the case of the swim team, Patterson is hopeful the team will help change the belief that only wealthier neighborhoods have the resources to swim competitively.
Roanoke has only two public pools, one in Fallon Park and the other in Washington Park, where the Barracudas practice free of charge. Patterson said the opportunity to swim for a competitive team like the Barracudas is uncommon for many kids in Roanoke.
“In a weird sort of way, we’ve been able to become a community organizer,” Patterson said. “We can pull together for-profit companies, we can pull together other nonprofits, we can pull individuals, we can leverage fundraising. That’s really what we’ve done here.”
It was Patterson who hired Tudor after he and his wife closed their family’s famous downtown restaurant, Tudor’s Biscuit World. Since that time, Patterson and Tudor have worked together to improve the lives of the needy, and the swim team is their largest project yet.
Patterson’s plan is to one day build a 30,000-square-foot community center in Roanoke, with a 10-lane pool as well as resources to help the local economy. Establishing the City Swim Barracudas is her first step toward achieving this goal.
“It’s a sport you can do your whole life,” Patterson said. “But you gotta love it.”
Funding for the team has mainly been provided by Member One Federal Credit Union, which underwrote the team and allowed many of the swimmers to join for free on a scholarship. A week before practice started, Member One provided $2,000 to the team to help offset the costs of registration and apparel.
Mark Hudzik, chief development officer with Member One, also brought in the YMCA of Roanoke Valley, which is helping to feed the City Swim kids during the week by providing lunches after the morning practices. The YMCA has its own swim team for kids, the Sea Lions, but requires its swimmers to be Y members.
Out of the roughly 150 swimmers who have registered for the Barracudas, Patterson estimates about 35 kids are paying to swim on the team. In an attempt to encourage families to join together, the team charges $50 for an individual and $75 for a whole family.
When the swimmers register they are provided with a club T-shirt, a swim suit, goggles, a swim cap and shorts.
“A big part of this is having them feel like a team,” Patterson said. “Even in advance of them learning how to swim well.”
Before every practice, the Acts 2 Ministry bus drives through northwest Roanoke to pick up kids who don’t have a ride to Washington Park.
The kids are from families who attend Acts 2 but aren’t necessarily old enough to attend the program designed for middle and high school students.
Amy Leggett works for the ministry as an office manager and drives the group of about 12 to 13 kids to practice. The church donates the van to help get the kids to and from practice, something Leggett sees as a thank you for providing the kids with scholarships that allow them to swim for the team at no cost.
“We figured it was the least we could do,” Leggett said.
Each time the van pulls up, the kids run to it, rubbing sleep from their eyes when they’re coming to the morning practice, holding their brand-new City Swim gear.
Leggett goes to the same two stops before every practice, and the kids adore her for it. If she’s a little late to the next stop, the kids will call her, making sure she’s still coming to pick them up and that practice is still happening.
Leggett volunteers her time as well, working as a lifeguard during practice while also swimming for the team in the adult portion of the meets. She is one of the many volunteers whose participation is a must to keep the team afloat.
“I think that’s the coolest part about it,” Leggett said. “Seeing all the different organizations in the city working together to make it happen.”
While driving the kids to practice early on a Wednesday, Leggett asked them if they were excited to swim the breast stroke, which the kids responded to with a resounding “no.” A girl in the back immediately yelled over the other kids talking in the car to get Leggett’s attention.
“Miss Amy, I know how to swim now!”
Daijah Bennett worries about drowning and she worries about embarrassing herself.
Daijah, still new to swimming, does have one thing on her side. Leggett, who drives the 12-year-old to the swim team functions, is there to support her. Before some meets she prays with Daijah, and after the race she’s there to give Daijah a hug.
“It made me feel supported, like I wasn’t the only one that was trying to build my self-confidence,” Daijah said. “It made me feel more confident in myself.”
During the third meet of the season, Daijah swam the breast stroke against other 12-year-olds in the RVAA, and finished last in her heat. Before every meet, Daijah’s nerves begin to set in. Not the kind of nervousness that comes from pre-meet jitters, but rather fears of what’s about to happen in a sport she’s still trying to understand.
She’ll jump into the water, that part she knows for sure, but everything that happens after that is uncertain.
“At the first beginning, like, it made me feel kind of scared whether I was going to stop in the middle or drown or anything,” Daijah said. “But at the end I just kept going and didn’t stop.”
In a summer of firsts for Daijah and her teammates, three things remain constant for her. She’s happy. She’s confident. She’s ready to learn something new.
The next day, Daijah was back in the water, ready to practice again.
BEHIND THE PHOTOS: Visit the Vignette blog to learn about Roanoke Times photojournalist Joel Hawksley's preparation for this assignment.