A man in tennis togs and a Marine fatigue hat stood at attention by the pool, pointing a pistol at the blue sky. "Swimmers take your marks," he said, and six young boys crouched at the water's edge. Being the father of swimmers carries a duty, and this is his. He clenched his teeth and shot a blank into the thick summer air on a Saturday in Fairfax City.

Behind the man hung an American flag, and beneath it were the other parents, a few hundred of them, arranged in lawn chairs on the hot concrete deck, yelling for their kids, drinking coffee, reading morning newspapers and holding pencils to official score sheets.

The sheets were compliments of "team rep" Linda Klopfenstein, the head parent for the Somerset-Olde Creek Recreation Association. She woke up at 6 a.m. Friday morning to get them copied for free at a friend's office. There wouldn't be swim meets without Klopfenstein and the 40 other parents who volunteer to help out with the meets. "We do it because somebody has to," she said. "It's a way of paying our dues and making sure our kids are taken care of. Of course, everybody doesn't help."

Even if they don't help, they still pay. They paid to have the pool built on land donated by a developer. They also pay a few hundred dollars for pool membership, and $16 per child, bathing cap and participation trophy included, to swim with the team. The return on their investment is the peace of mind that brought them to suburbia in the first place. Children can ride their bikes to the pool, where they will be supervised, learn to swim, and have something to do on long, sultry summer afternoons.

And on Saturday mornings during the Northern Virginia Swimming League's six-week season, the parents come to watch the competition. At neighborhood pools throughout the Virginia suburbs, 90 teams, with some 10,000 members, do battle in the butterfly and free-style before the appreciative mothers and fathers, and the scenes are similar to that at Somerset-Olde Creek.

Yesterday it was Villa Aquatic from Fairfax visiting SOC, and if some of the swimmers and perhaps their parents had trophies and college scholarships on their minds, there was a relaxed feeling to the events.

The 7- to 18-year-old Villa swimmers sat on the deck near the diving board, the ones from SOC on the grass beneath the maple and pine and crab apple trees. They wore skimpy bathing suits, and the bodies of the older ones have taken on swimmers' tone, a twist of nature that has left the boys long and lithe and triangular, the girls thick and round and bulky.

Three 13-year-old SOC girls wrote on each other's backs and arms and legs with pink, blue and red makeup--"SOC it to 'Em," "Eat 'Em Up"--while four little girls sat in a circle nearby and played cards, a game one of them said "I just made up." They ate candy from the concession, little lollypops called Ring Pops that look like pacifiers, and Reese's Pieces, as featured in the movie "E.T."

The SOC coach, Erin English, sat nearby, oblivious to a boy tickling her leg with a long blade of grass, concerned only with the race, yelling, "Go For It!" "Pull, Baby, Pull!" "Stretch it Out!" Around her neck was a gold chain with a little gold band, a little gold heart, and a little gold pendant signifying her membership in Delta Delta Delta at the University of Southern California, where she is studying exercise science in preparation for medical school.

English, who'll be 20 next month, started swimming when she was 5, and says she hit her prime at 8, when she was ranked third in Arizona in breast stroke. "After that I kind of burned out, even though I kept swimming until I graduated from high school."

English loves to win, but her own experience has taught her a lesson. "Competition is important," she says, "but participation is more so."

She sets goal times for the children, and if they break their goal, they get a gold star on a big chart. At the end of the season she gives the child with the most gold stars a pair of goggles. The next one down gets a huge Cadbury candy bar, and so on down the line until the last prize is a roll of Smarties. She has started a program she calls "SOC pals," named after pen pals, in which an older child is assigned to a younger one as a "role-model type thing."

At the end of the season English will also buy each of the 100 children some type of personalized gag present: a box of cereal for the girl who shows up at 8 a.m. practices eating her breakfast, a doll blanket for the boy who likes to sleep on the deck.

And, as it should be, she will also present each child with a trophy. To get one, a child need do nothing more than participate. It used to be that SOC presented a big trophy to the "Top Fin" on the team and all the others got two-inch high trophies. "We stopped that because we didn't want to single anyone out," English said.

This doesn't bother the top swimmers at all. Racing in lane 3, a body length ahead of the rest, was Kyle Koontz. Koontz is 12, swims for two Fairfax teams in the summer, one in the winter. He'll be in seventh grade next year. By the time he gets to high school at Woodson he hopes to be swimming for three teams.

Koontz touched the wall amid a great roar and commotion, then jumped out of the pool to check his time. It was 27.9, one-tenth second short of the NVSL record. He shook the water out of his blond hair, whipping his head side to side like a shaggy dog.

"Darn," he said, "I really wanted that record." His face darkened. Then he caught sight of his friends Kristen Spencer, Daphne English and Lori Swedish, still painting slogans on their arms and legs with lipstick.

"Hey, look at that," he said. In a moment he was beside the girls, his attempt at a record forgotten.