Kris Santos arrived at the Prince George's Community College indoor pool at noon Saturday, put on his headphones, cranked up the Guns N' Roses in his portable CD player and bounced around the lobby.
The Eleanor Roosevelt High School senior had an hour to kill before the swim meet with Bowie and Oxon Hill was to begin. It hardly mattered to Santos; after all, what's an hour to a person who has been waiting for this particular meet since the summer?
Steve Groff also had been thinking about this meet for months. The Bowie senior arrived at the pool at 12:30 p.m. and walked inside the building to prepare quietly for the meet.
Both swimmers anxiously awaited the same thing--the 50-yard freestyle, their speciality. Both swimmers looked forward to racing each other.
And both swimmers expected to win.
"We're acquaintances from swimming," Groff said three days before the meet. "There's definitely a rivalry. We're both out there to beat each other--it's fun. I want to beat him. That's what I've been working toward."
High school sports are full of rivalries such as this one. There is the rivalry between the two schools, one that runs through virtually every sport. "We're only 15 minutes apart, so it's like a cross-town rivalry," explained Perry Koons, a Roosevelt senior and Santos's best friend. "It's a pretty friendly rivalry."
Then there is the rivalry within the larger rivalry, the one between two high school seniors who share a common goal. Each wants to win a county title in the 50 freestyle, and to do that one must beat the other.
Santos is the defending champion in the 50 freestyle; he was undefeated in the event last season. Groff finished second to Santos twice last year.
Groff's motivation came from last year's losses. Santos's came from a story he read in a local paper, in which Groff "said that his goal was to win the 50. To do that he has to go through me, because I'm the defending champ," Santos said.
"Steve's my closest competitor," Santos added. "This year his times have been quicker than mine, so the pressure's on him. But the pressure is also on me, because I'm the defending champ."
Groff and Santos are captains of their teams. Both are leaders, although Groff tends to lead by quiet example while Santos is loud and enthusiastic. Both are passionate about swimming, though neither swims year-round for a club team. And both are involved in other activities--Groff plays on the Bowie club ice hockey team and Santos is the sports editor of the school paper.
During the week leading up to the meet, Santos hardly practiced because he was sick. He visualized the race every day, however, picturing a solid start, a good turn and a strong finish.
Groff worked specifically on his flip turns--one of his weaknesses--at practice during the week. "I lost to him last year on the flip turns," Groff said. "I have a better start, and I think we're equal strength-wise, but he's much better on the flip turns."
The chanting began as the previous race, the girls 200 individual medley, ended. The Roosevelt swimmers started it, chanting, "Kris! Kris! Kris!" and the Bowie swimmers responded with yells of "Steve! Steve! Steve!" It was as if every Bowie and Roosevelt swimmer was aware of the rivalry between Santos and Groff. The loudest cheers of the afternoon came as the swimmers stepped to the blocks for the boys 50 free.
Groff, who was in lane five, got off to a good start and had an early lead, just as he hoped. Santos, in lane four, quickly gained on Groff and pulled even following a strong flip turn. Groff pulled ahead down the stretch and touched the wall first.
And just like that, the race was over. Weeks of preparation and days of anticipation boiled down to this: Groff edged Santos by 0.08 seconds--23.59 to 23.67. Santos pulled off his cap and got out of the water; Groff lingered in the pool, without a trace of a smile on his face, before getting out. The two swimmers shook hands.
When the meet was over, Roosevelt's boys had claimed an 111-56 victory.
Santos was not happy with his second-place finish, but he tried to remember his pre-meet advice to his teammates: "Don't get too high if you win or too low if you lose. Set your sights on the county championships."
"This will motivate me to be stronger next time," Santos said. "We got to see where we stand with each other. February 19th [the date of the county championship] is the race that matters."
Groff was quietly pleased with the result. But there was no wild celebration; after the race, Groff walked over to the bleachers to talk to his parents, and then he wrapped a towel around his head, grabbed his thermos of orange juice, and sat on a bench with his teammates.
"I'm trying not to get too wrapped up in just one victory," Groff said. Bowie Coach Patti Bayly "told me that my turn wasn't very good, and on my start I kind of slipped. I have to go back and work on those things."
The win "really means a lot to him," said Chad Morris, a Bowie senior and Groff's teammate and friend.
"He's trying to act like it's not that important because they have to swim each other two more times."
The two teams--and Groff and Santos--will meet again on Feb. 12 for a dual meet. The following week is the county championship meet--and the race that really counts.
Groff and Santos know that. Shortly before Saturday's meet ended, Groff stopped to talk with Santos. They shook hands one more time, and as they parted, Santos said, "I'll be watching your times."
Groff grinned. "I'm watching you too," he said, and then walked away.
CAPTION: Bowie's Steve Groff, above, and Eleanor Roosevelt's Kris Santos are studies in concentration before they get in the water for the 50-yard freestyle race on Saturday. Groff emerged the winner--by 0.08 seconds.