It is 8 o'clock Saturday morning, and except for a few zealots who have been up all night painting threatening messages on banners, the pool area is vacant. The first droopy-eyed parents arrive at 8:20, toting stop watches and extra towels. They blink in the sunlight, waking up at the sight of their summer friends.
At 8:40 the visiting swimmers dive in the water to give a final tuneup to their fast starts and flip turns. A few of the older girls wear two suits for the same reason a batter swings two bats during practice. Their coach paces neverously beside the pool, shouting last-minute instructions.
Suddenly the home team, one hundred strong, making like a bank of Geronimo's finest, comes shrieking down the path to the pool. They burst through a banner and gather in a tight circle around their coach cheering and clapping wildly.
Caught off guard and determined not to be outclassed, the visiting team quickly dries off and an intense cheering contest is under way.
At 9 o'clock the swimmers in the first event gather at the business end of the pool. The starter barks, "Swimmers, take your marks!" and the kids crouch over the water, knees bent, arms extended. They fear their pounding hearts will obscure the shot, but at the sound they hit the water with the sleek belly-flops they've practiced for a month.
The crowd, quiet for the start, lets out a whoop, and the battle - which will last 2 1/2 hours - is on.
This scene, played out recently in Silver Spring at Daleview Pool, whose team was challenged by Regency Estates, is typical of the competitions held between children's teams throughout the D.C. area on summer Saturdays.
Like fireworks on the fourth of July, swim meets begin slowly and accelerate to a breathtaking sound-and-light display of relays at the finale. This meet is into the freestyle competition, alternating between boys and girls as it goes through the age groups. The older ones swim up to four lengths of a 25-meter pool; the younger groups just sprint the length once.
Everything is proceeding smoothly until the 8-and-under girls come to the line. Instead of his customary single starting shot, the starter fires twice, signifying a false start. It is the starter's duty to make sure none of the swimmers dive before he pulls the trigger. If he sees forward movement ahead of the shot, he quickly shoots again.
When the girls are pulled from the pool they are trembling and scared. The starter tells them they can rest awhile and the meet continues. Some of the older boys bring the girls towels and whisper encouragement.
The backstroke is next. You don't dive in when you're swimming backstroke. Instead you turn your back on the pool and dangle your posterior over the water, gripping a bigger kid's ankles to keep from falling in. When the gun goes off you let go, push against the wall, and lunge into your stroke.
After the backstroke event, there is some quick addition by the scorer, and the mid-meet score is announced to the crowd. The home team is behind by 20 points.
After the break the breastroke competition starts. This stroke is easily the least favorite of the spectators although most swimmers appreciate it. The payoff for the exertion is a mighty slow pace and swimmers who look for all the world like turtles bobbing up and down in the water.
At this point, as noses redden from the sun and minds start to wander, the meet seems endless. But then it's time to fly.
Butterfly, that is. The little children haven't learned it yet so only swimmers over 10 come forward. This is where winter-long swimming pays off. Only bodies strengthened by daily workouts can endure the grueling butterfly, all vaulting arms and dolphin-kicking legs. This stroke is a crowd pleaser, beautiful to watch but exhausting to perform.
Suddenly the meet is amost over, the word is passed from the scorers' table: the home team must take at least one of the final two relays to win the meet.
The crowd is on its feet as the two best 8-and-under swimmers from each team stand alone at the edge of the pool. At the opposite end two slightly older kids wait. And behind the 8-and-unders in stair-step fashion stand two other swimmers.
At the sound of the gun the crowd creates an enormous din. The swimmer from the home team is not very fast; she leaves a huge deficit in seconds for the girl on the next leg to recoup. The swifter girl makes up the loss and finally it all comes down to two 13-to-14-year old girls swimming two lengths freestyle.
Each competitor has been in four events already. They are plainly tired but are spurred on by the sight of each other, one ahead at the start, the other gaining. The girl from the home team touches the wall first and the crowd screams its delight.
The home team has won by seven points. The kids swarm around their coach who quickly divests himself of stopwatch and clipboard. He's going for a swim.
The happy parents take down the flags and check the scores for any reocrd-breaking times. Meanwhile, the celebrating team leaves for its traditional victory feast - a trip to a fast food spot. CAPTION: Picture 1, Dave Spangenberg fires starter's pistol for relay event; Picture 2, A parent and a competitor exhibit excitement at outcome of event at Daleview Pool in Silver Spring.