Courtesy: Michael Moriarty
Last Saturday, the defending Northern Virginia Swim League (NVSL) champion Chesterbrook Tiger Sharks invaded nearby Langley Swim Club, where the visitors swamped the host Wild Things in a meet that was mostly forgettable: nobody swam a record time, and the team score was so lopsided that nobody bothered to announce it. Still, for this old Tiger Shark dad, the visit to that shallow, little pool prompted a flood of memories and a single question.
Tucked away in the woods, wedged between a nature preserve and the Washington Beltway, Langley’s simple, shallow concrete rectangle in the middle of a flat lawn remains largely as it was constructed in the mid-1950s, when developing a community swim club pretty much meant simply “dig hole, pour concrete, add water and children, then step back and enjoy.” Just a few years after Langley opened, my parents and neighbors did the same, pooling their funds to buy a patch of nearly worthless land hanging over the I-66 right of way to construct High Point Pool.
When we fielded our first team, in 1967, our teenagers knew how to swim only in the sense that their parents could send them away to a week of summer camp and be fairly certain they wouldn’t drown in the lake. The few lifeguards (from other clubs, of course) who knew a little more were in charge of teaching younger kids (like me) swim basics – and our goal was to gain permission to go off the high dive as much as it was to swim in a Saturday meet. Our club took its name from its site – the highest point in Fairfax County – but neutral observers (and maybe a few opposing teams) laughed at the irony of that name, as we went winless in our inaugural season, going 0-4 in the league’s bottom division (9).
If our swim technique and our times weren’t exactly winning any awards, who could blame us? Fastskin swim suits? Most of us owned one suit, and we wore it for practice, playing around and in meets; by late July, they were baggy and fading, seeming to lose color as we gained it, as we spent nearly every free moment of every day hanging out at our pool. Personalized, silicon caps to announce your team and your name? Well, for starters, boys never wore swim caps (and yes, many of us had long hair), and many of the girls didn’t either: they pulled their hair back in pony tails and kind of slung it to the side when they took a breath. Goggles? What, are we going scuba diving? Or “fast pools” – what could that possibly mean? Weren’t they all 25 meter boxes, with lanes separated by nylon ropes and buoys every 6 or 8 feet? And what’s this about the timers “getting a triple”? We hit the water when the starter fired his pistol, and timers exercised their judgment in reading the sweep second hand to the tenth of a second.
With neighborhood pools opening throughout northern Virginia, the NVSL added another division in 1968 – and plopped hapless High Point Pool right into it. We lost three more meets, but we won one! And that meant that for one season, anyway, we were the bottom rail, but we weren’t the mudsill. It might have been that we were learning how to swim faster – though it’s hard to be certain, since we didn’t win a second meet for another two years – but I think we were learning nonetheless. It was the summer of 1968, the one that started with Robert Kennedy’s assassination and ended with the rioting at the Democratic Party’s National Convention in Chicago. And throughout that July and many more to come, we would tie blue and white streamers to our car antennas and pile into American made station wagons and head out for parts unknown of Northern Virginia. We visited Little Hunting Park and Hollin Meadows in the southern part of the county, off Telegraph Road; we ventured to Springfield to swim Orange Hunt and Rolling Valley; or we might just drive cross-town and compete against schoolmates at Poplar Heights (the established power in Falls Church, one of the NVSL’s founding clubs), or to Hamlet, a relative newcomer like High Point. And we went to the western edge of the county to swim Herndon – out in the sticks, our coach assured us, where the other guys would be worn out from doing farm chores before the meet (they weren’t) and would be easy to beat (again, they weren’t, at all).
Directions to these away meets were printed (mimeographed) on little slips of paper handed out by some well-organized parent in our gravel parking lot before we departed, but when my brothers and I piled into the family Ford Galaxy station wagon, we had no idea where we were going or who we were swimming against. This was pre-internet (by about 30 years), so scouting the competition was something that happened after trekking around the Beltway, navigating through quiet, unfamiliar neighborhood streets, and shuffling onto the other team’s deck, where we might glimpse the end of their warm-ups. We’d size them up: any studs here? Not sure, let’s go casually check their record-board…
Only once (okay, twice) did we see through this fog of the unknown, and that was when we swam against the Springfield Tiger Sharks – in 1972 and 1974. A charter member of the NVSL, Springfield Swim & Racquet Club is situated in a working class neighborhood off Backlick Road that (at least from the backseat of a station wagon) looked pretty much like a lot of the other middle-class neighborhoods we visited: wide, curbed streets, boxy brick ramblers, sparse, flat lawns, and a swim club at the dead end of the road, across from an industrial park backing up to the Beltway. The club itself? Also pretty much like all the others we visited: your basic 6-lane rectangle, a little baby pool off in the grass, and a “club house”: a multi-purpose structure rendered a little less utilitarian by the architectural detail of dual arched walls leading to the restrooms. The club also features four tennis courts.
But if Springfield was like so many other teams, the Tiger Sharks stood out on our schedule for one simple reason: Melissa Belote. As a 12-year old, Melissa had ripped almost two seconds off the NVSL record in the 50 Backstroke. She put the 13-14 record out of sight, too, but she had much bigger goals. As a 15-year-old at the Munich Olympics, she crushed the Olympic and World Records in the 100 and 200 Meter Backstroke events, and led off the gold-medal winning 400 Meter Medley Relay. That summer of 1972, Melissa won for the United States, for the Springfield Tiger Sharks and in many ways for every team, every little kid in the Northern Virginia Swim League, no matter your home team. We were young, and although we vaguely understood that something had gone wrong at the Munich Olympics, we absorbed the simple idea that a young girl – someone like us, swimming at a simple little pool like ours, in a simple middle-class neighborhood like ours – had achieved superstardom. She had driven home the conviction that every single club we swam against deserved respect; only one of them had an Olympian on their team (so far), but all of them could be where the next Olympian would start out.
Twelve years after High Point Pool opened – the length of time it takes to develop a full complement of swimmers who had learned the strokes as true youngsters – the team completed its climb to Division 1, where it competed for three seasons before settling back to the middle of the pack. Springfield Swim & Racquet, though, never managed a run to the top and now competes in the NVSL’s cellar, Division 17, where it recently endured a string of six seasons without a win. On a quiet Sunday evening in early July, the line-up from the previous day’s meet remain posted on the bulletin board: several empty lanes exposed the team’s modest size, and the names on the sheet suggested the team comprises kids from families who have arrived in the United States relatively recently, who are just starting to learn how to swim – first to keep from drowning, and second to compete in a Saturday meet. Young swimmers, fast times, and team wins may be sparse at Springfield, but the Tiger Sharks’ “record board” (a sheet of paper stapled to the bulletin board) remains the only one in the NVSL featuring the name of a three-time Olympic gold medalist and former world record holder.
The Springfield Tiger Sharks have won two Division 17 meets in each of the last three seasons – and for a lot of reasons that’s not too shabby. Meanwhile, about 10 miles away in McLean the Chesterbrook Tiger Sharks are chasing their third straight Division 1 title — representing the de facto championship of the 102-team league. After floating up and down the NVSL’s middle divisions from 1956 until 1980, the club has now spent the past 19 seasons firmly ensconced in Division 1, where the teams among the league’s elite change little from year to year: an Oakton for a Little Rocky Run, or a McLean for Highlands, or a Vienna Aquatic for Vienna Woods, all of them from comfortable neighborhoods. There’s less “discovery” in Division 1: even when they’re forced to take the Beltway or I-66 to get to another club for a Saturday morning meet, these teams are rarely far from home, are rarely in a neighborhood much different from their own. For that matter, there are no fast swimmers lurking in the shallows to be spied during warm-ups, as residents of the NVSL’s penthouse tend to know each other well – if not from sharing the league’s luxury suite year after year, then from the year-round clubs where they hone their skills under the watchful eyes (and cameras) of highly experienced and well-compensated coaches, where they compete in state-of-the-art pools while sporting swim suits that cost more than the annual membership dues at a club like Springfield.
I’m now enjoying my 19th summer with the Chesterbrook Tiger Sharks, and it looks to be another successful one. Along with all the other parents, I think we’re doing as much as we can to support our kids in and out of the water. We grow, we learn, we swim fast, and we almost never lose. Or do we?
About Mike Moriarty
Mike Moriarty grew up in Falls Church, Virginia, where he competed for High Point Pool from 1968 to 1978. A member of Chesterbrook Swim & Tennis since 2000, he has served as the club’s President, as the “Team Representative” to the NVSL, as editor of the Tiger Shark Times newsletter, and in a variety of other capacities supporting the Tiger Sharks.