Atholton senior Molly McNeil was amazed at how far her swim team had come as she celebrated winning the county championship meet Sunday.
"Four years ago, we had just one swimmer on our whole team -- one," she said. "We've had to overcome so much adversity since then. We came here with 35 swimmers, and River Hill had 55, so I still didn't even expect for us to win. So this is just awesome for us."
What former teammate Laura Allen started in 2001 has certainly grown up. The Raiders, once nicknamed "L.A.S.T.," (Laura Allen Swim Team) are now the county's best squad after a 1,086-1,082 victory over defending champion River Hill; the victory margin is the smallest in the event's 25-year history.
Howard came in third with 708.5, followed by Hammond (569), Wilde Lake (475) and Oakland Mills (308.5). Wilde Lake senior Danielle Surkovich was the top girls' scorer with 60 points, and Wilde Lake senior Josh Nachman and Howard's Freddie Reitz shared the boys' honor with 60 points apiece.
But Atholton's triumph was a sidebar to a bigger story that was found in the pool and around the crowded deck at Howard County Community College. There were a meet-record 220 swimmers -- 126 girls, 94 boys -- from 11 public schools in the event, the only competition where swimmers represent their high schools. Swimming is considered a club, not a varsity, sport in Howard County.
But some swimmers and meet organizers say such a strong showing is evidence the county should elevate swimming to varsity status.
"We have 30 on our team, and no team at Hammond has more than we do except for the football team," said Hammond senior Shawn Klement. "I think our team would get a lot more recognition if we were a varsity sport because we'd have a lot of students who'd want to be on it."
Mike Williams, the county's coordinator of athletics, said he would love to see varsity swimming, but he also said it isn't going to happen in the foreseeable future. The county does not have aquatic facilities for a full season of high school swimming or the money to fund the sport. And the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association -- which governs high school sports in the state -- does not recognize swimming as a varsity sport.
"Don't get me wrong: I love to swim, and it's a lifelong sport that has a lot of benefits," Williams said. "But I don't see how we could handle it right now. The chances of it becoming a varsity sport anytime soon are slim at best."
For this meet, team captains -- the teams do not have adult coaches -- organized their fellow students, leading to a variety of skill levels in the pool. Howard junior Amilee Smith and River Hill freshman Sam Gelb, who have qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2008 in the 100 and 200-meter breaststroke, respectively, were among the competitors. So were River Hill wrestlers Randall Mazzarino and Ryan Deiter, both just happy they did not finish last in the 50 freestyle.
"I can't even remember the last time I swam a race, but I'm glad I got the chance," Deiter said. "I don't know what my time was, but I know I beat somebody. It was fun because I'll probably never get the chance again."