For a room that usually hosts board meetings, the clubhouse at the Montgomery Square Copenhaver Swim Club in Rockville looked out of order on a recent Saturday morning.

The makeshift waiting area for the Damascus and Montgomery Square Copenhaver swim teams was proof that the downpour, which did postpone some of the more than 100 swimming meets around the Beltway, wasn't going to ruin this one.

Parents and coaches, stepping over damp towels and sneakers, bathing caps and sweatshirts, lined up the children for their events. The youngest swimmers, the 8-year-olds playing clapping games, scrambled to the open window when the first starting gun sent the swimmers into the chilly water.

By noon, the rain had slowed and Damascus, a newcomer to the Montgomery County Swim League's Division A this season, had scored an upset, 239-236, over the defending division team champions. The winners would celebrate with pizza. The losers would celebrate, too.

Such is the Saturday morning routine for thousands of Washington-area youth swimmers and their families. The summer is their glory season and family vacations aren't taken until the meets wind down in August.

The Northern Virginia Swim League, with 89 pools, is the country's oldest (25 years) and largest (8,000 swimmers) public league. With MCSL, with 72 pools and 5,500 swimmers, and the Prince Mont League, with 40 pools between Montgomery and Prince George's counties and another three in Charles County, club swimming around the Beltway provides a community sense that doesn't exist in other swimming programs around the country.

Several smaller leagues -- the 30-year-old, Maryland-dominated Country Club Swimming and Diving Association (17 teams), and Northern Virginia's Dominion Country Club (nine teams), Colonial (12 teams) and Reston (eight teams) -- combine to make the Washington area a hotbed for youth summer swimming.

Thirteen-year-old swimmers, many of them six- and seven-year veterans, are common. Nine- and 10-year-olds practice as many hours as 18-year-olds, often three hours a day. And teams that number 80 are considered small: Cardinal Hill of the NVSL's Division 1 has 190 swimmers and 10 coaches.

Its best known coach is Melissa Belote, Springfield's gold-medal Olympian, and the pride of the NVSL. Now 24, Belote is the developmental coach for Cardinal Hill's 11-and-unders, some of whom weren't born when she won three golds in the 1972 Olympics.

"League swimming is fun, it's neat, and it's a community effort," said Belote, who works as a government sales representative for Xerox. "The idea is for the kids to improve themselves, and become better winners, and better losers.

"But I've seen some teams, like stronger ones that use a lot of AAU swimmers, approach the league with 'Win, win, win' attitudes. You'd think they're out for blood, and that's not how summer swimming should be."

The argument against allowing AAU swimmers, who better themselves with year-round pool time, to compete in the area leagues comes up in offseason meetings every few years. Belote, a veteran of both summer and AAU swimming who has swum in several parts of the country, said the Washington area is almost alone in allowing AAU swimmers in its summer programs.

"There's parochial views on both sides of the AAU question," said Bill Bancroft, the NVSL president. "We don't discourage AAU swimmers just because they happen to be very dedicated to the sport, and better for it."

For kids who want to stay sharp without committing to the rigors of AAU swimming, several NVSL teams have winter developmental alternatives. Belote is planning a one-evening-a-week program for the Cardinal Hill youth.

Older swimmers use high school teams to keep up their times throughout the year.

"This kind of winter swimming is low pressure," Belote said. "It's an alternative to AAU, which I've seen misused by kids who just want to stay on top to swim the NVSL meets."

All-star individual meets and relay carnivals are the highlights of the summer. Swimmers try for all-star qualifying times in the five dual division meets during June and July.

Six-team divisions, the standard for area leagues, rank teams each year according to "time-in-water" figures. It is a complicated calculation, which considers a team's won-lost record, placement in division meets, and fastest times by individual swimmers in the five age groups.

All of which is why the Damascus team was so pleased with its three-point win over Montgomery Square Copenhaver, last year's A champions. Damascus had climbed from Division E to A over two seasons.

Parent volunteers are the backbone of youth swimming, providing everything from change for the pool snack bar to long hours at offseason planning meetings.

"We get tremendous help from parents," said Ron Camp, the MCSL president from West Hillandale, who presides over the league's 12 divisions. "They're a very communicative, eager group.

"When we were considering liability insurance for the diving program, one father, who is a lawyer, went through a year-long process to get the league incorporated. And another parent has volunteered to computerize division standings and records for the first time."

The turnout for the three-hour-long Saturday morning meets, which attract more than 1,500 volunteers in the NVSL alone, is impressive. Parents take up clipboards and stopwatches to work the pool decks as starters, timers, stroke-and-turn judges and referees. Others work the snack bar and writer ribbons.

The general rule is that if a child is swimming in a meet, the parent is working it.

"The coaches like us to stay for the whole meet, and not leave after our own kids' events," said Roa Sanford, a mother of two Wakefield Chapel swimmers. "Really, it's a lot of fun, and a chance to see other parents that you don't see during the week."

A second round of parents coordinate "B" meets, Monday evenings in the NVSL and Wednesdays in the Montgomery and Prince Mont Leagues, for swimmers not fast enough to make a lane assignment in Saturday meets. Family dinner times on those nights are obsolete.

"The whole family has to be committed to doing this summer swimming," Sanford said. "But it's especially rewarding when the kids are winning."

All parents assume cheering duties alongside the swimmers.

"Only you can never tell which of the kids is in the water," said Pat Fenati, a Damascus mother. "You have to memorize lane assignments.

"What I like is that you've got 18-year-olds yelling for 18-year-olds," Fenati said. "There's such a feeling for the whole team, all 100 kids."

Winning sometimes is a family triumph. The six Bergmans of Wakefield Chapel, Northern Virginia's largest swimming family, count on bringing home about 20 ribbons each Saturday. The four Bakers of Potomac finished the season with 80 individual ribbons, 63 of them blue. The three Hettches of Forest Pool in Oxon Hill came up with nine blue ribbons among them one week.

"Ribbons are important, especially for these young kids," said Mark O'Hara, the president of the Country Club Association, which holds developmental meets for swimmers who haven't won ribbons in regular dual meets. "Sometimes they don't care what events they swan, or even if what they got is only a participation ribbon."

Ribbons aren't given for the loudest cheering sections at meets. They should be. Youngsters cheer for each other, and cheer after point totals and lane assignments are announced.

Another common practice at meets is kids eating jello powder. "That's why you see so many orange fingers and mouths," one mother said.

At Wakefield Chapel one Saturday in July, when the visiting Cardinal Hill team crowded into the women's shower room to escape the rain, the meet stayed tight throughout.

"We were supposed to win this one, but some kids went away with their families this weekend," said Brandon Furlich of Cardinal Hill, 12.

His teammate, Charles Halfmann, 13, had done some calculations before the start of the relays, the final leg of the meet. "We need to win six of the eight to win this thing," he said. "You get five points or nothing for a relay."

Cardinal Hill won only two of the relays, and fell short overall, 215-187.

The girls who swam the winning laps for Wakefield Chapel wanted to know their splits.

"Too fast for the watch," said Frank Marcinkowski, the coach who knows what youngsters want to hear.