HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – The loudest cheers in the Rocket City Swim League are not for the fastest athletes, they are for the bravest.
A 12-year-old boy courageously decides to leave his wheelchair and enter a freestyle event in New Market during the last dual meet of the season. In Huntsville, a little girl with only one arm beautifully performs the butterfly.
Alongside the heated competition, a true meaning of the league plays out across Madison County at member pools during the summer and culminates at the City Meet this weekend.
Several RCSL teams have children with some sort of disability swimming in their respective age groups. There are even two special needs teams available. The Dolphins and Minnows gather in a team atmosphere with tailored training.
Greenwyche Pool started the Dolphins program last season. This year, Byrd Spring added a feeder team called the Minnows.
“Our hope all along was for this to grow,” said Matthew Brown, who is the head coach of both the Dolphins and Greenwyche Pool swim teams. “It is a sign that maybe we are doing this the right way.”
The Dolphins feature more advanced special needs swimmers and the Minnows sport children just learning how to swim.
“We’re actually thinking that pretty soon we’re going to start introducing and teaching other strokes besides the freestyle for the Dolphins,” Brown said of his 13-member team. “I’ve been watching them grow and noticing how they are improving and getting pretty fast.”
Brown is going into his senior year at Auburn University, majoring in biochemistry. He is a Huntsville High School graduate and swam four years for the Crimson Panthers. He competed 10 seasons in the RCSL. This is his third year as head coach at Greenwyche. He guided the Gators to the RCSL City Meet team title last season.
The RCSL City Meet is this weekend at the Brahan Spring Park Natatorium. The diving portion of the meet begins on Friday, July 8. The swimming gets underway on Saturday and Sunday at 8:30 a.m. with 10-and-unders competing in the morning sessions and the older swimmers in the afternoon.
City Meet features 18 teams from area pools all around Madison County. Athletes compete at a neutral site in individual events and team relays for overall league individual and team titles as well as league standings. Each team recently completed five dual meets on a home and away basis during the regular season.
The atmosphere is always electric as the children swim for glory. For those with special needs, the race is already won simply by participating.
Karen Ferguson, team representative to the RCSL board for Greenwyche, was the first person to move forward with the special needs team idea. She put together a proposal and submitted it to the RCSL council last year. The board of directors passed the proposal for the Dolphins unanimously prior to the start of the 2015 season.
“It is fantastic that Byrd Spring has joined in this year with the Minnows and so wonderful for the community,” Ferguson said.
Kathy Williams, head coach of Byrd Spring since 2006, followed Ferguson’s blueprint.
“From the very beginning, the RCSL Board was excited about the Minnows and adding them to the league,” Williams said. “It only took one vote at the April meeting of all the pool reps to okay the Minnows participation in the league.”
Williams initially talked to Ferguson, who told her last year the RSCL wanted every pool to have the opportunity to participate. As the season progressed, the parents of the Dolphins expressed they wanted to keep the team at Greenwyche.
“We knew we wanted to do something, so our team rep, Alexis Lindow, along with Karen (Ferguson), came up with the idea of a team of younger special needs children and thought the Minnows would be a great extension program,” Williams said.
Williams immediately contacted Jack and Tricia Roberts to see if they thought it was something they might want their daughter, Emma Roberts, to try. Williams also emailed several special needs teachers in the school system.
“Emma came to our very first practice and has been coming ever since,” Williams said. “The kids have really taken to her. It is a team effort between myself, my assistant coaches Tricia Cato and Ian Blasingame, as well as all of our kids.”
Williams began her swimming career at Byrd Spring Pool in the late 1960s and was a member of an 8-and-under City Meet record-setting medley relay. She was a member of the Huntsville Swim Association and also swam for Grissom High School.
She worked with special needs children in the Huntsville city school system for more than seven years and one year with the Madison City school system.
Williams is currently employed by the Knight Allstate Agency in Madison. She is the single mother of three boys.
As a coach, Williams says her job is to teach children how to swim and do the strokes correctly, hopefully win events, win meets and do well in the City Meet.
“But more importantly, I feel it is my job to teach life lessons and be a Christian example to my swimmers. We’ve done swim-a-thons to help people in need, too. Our team is about serving others.”
The league as a whole continues to move forward, too, giving all children the opportunity to participate and feel appreciated.