It might have been two or three swim meets in one, so jammed was the pool deck with milling, cheering, sun-broiled kids. The announcer added to the overall giddiness. "History is being made here," he said, his voice crackling with emotion. "This is fantastic. We're cutting the record book to a shambles."
They were merely YMCA records that had the fellow so excitedly mixing his metaphors, but nobody in Fort Lauderdale last week could complain about being slighted. The occasion was the National YMCA Swimming and Diving Championships, and if the four-day meet fell a notch or two below world class, it still carried a big-time flavor. This meant that attire at the International Swimming Hall of Fame's pool included T shirts imprinted with wicked sayings like DANGEROUS WHEN WET. It meant that winners slapped palms and losers contemplated suicide. And, of course, there were swim parents aplenty, including the father of a 14-year-old girl from Ohio whose 400-yard medley relay team was declared ineligible. Dad greeted the news by slamming his fist through a plasterboard wall in the Holiday Inn.
The competitors swam for the glory of YMCAs in Kokomo and Kalamazoo, places people used to write songs about. The Y's swimming program is strictly grass-roots, only occasionally producing anything resembling a superstar. And when it does, the Y in question usually loses the hotshot to a college or big-name AAU club, as is happening now with Mike Curington, a high school senior who will do his swimming next fall at the University of Alabama.
Curington, from Birmingham's Shades Valley Y, won six first places in Fort Lauderdale—three in individual events and three in relays—to add to seven other gold medals collected in earlier Y nationals. Slender, blue-eyed and with a mop of blond hair tucked under a Gatsby cap, he drew sighs from the girls at poolside, several of whom cadged his autograph and snapped his picture. But Curington, a sensible lad, attached less importance to his Y exploits than to his performance two weeks earlier in the AAU short-course championships in Dallas, where his best finish was an 11th in the 200 freestyle.
May 5, 1974
"The AAU meet proved I could swim with some of the top guys," he said. "YMCA competition isn't nearly as tough. In a way, it's like a vacation being here."
YMCA officials shrugged off their meet's minor-league status. "There are only a few winners in anything," said Jim Stocker, the Y's competitive swimming chairman. "But we want the kid who finishes 40th to have the experience of competing in a national meet, too." Compensating with numbers, the YMCA event drew 856 swimmers—down from last year's turnout of 1,300—but still sufficient to justify double-duty use of the Olympic pool. A makeshift bulkhead was installed at the pool's middle, creating a pair of identical 25-yard, eight-lane courses and enabling organizers to run off preliminary heats two at a time.
Behind this assembly-line approach lies the Y's emphasis on mass recreation. Its constituency is so broad that the very name—Young Men's Christian Association—has long been misleading. This was borne out in Florida when Wendy Weinberg of the Towson, Md. Y won three events. A 15-year-old Maccabiah Games veteran, Wendy is young, but there is no way she is either a man or a Christian. The YMCA introduced the women's swimming championships in 1967 to go with its long-entrenched men's nationals, and today 40% of its 100,000 age-group and senior swimmers are female.
The Y's more-the-merrier philosophy, fine for attracting people to the sport, is what keeps it from producing—or at least hanging onto—topflight swimmers. Pool time is one problem. Besides competitive swimming, YMCA pools are used by scuba clubs, lifesaving classes, Minnows, Guppies, Pollywogs and father-and-son groups, plus such assorted activities as underwater Bingo games, which were all the rage for a while at the Y in Madison, Wis. There also is the uneven quality of coaching. Aquatic directors do not earn very much, and many teams are coached by unpaid volunteers.
Given the limitations under which the Y labors, it was encouraging that the championships were so keenly contested. Shades Valley was seeking its third straight men's title but lost to Ridgewood, N.J., whose depth offset the individual brilliance of Curington and teammate Bill Forrester, who also won six events. The women's title went to B.R. Ryall YMCA of Glen Ellyn, Ill. Inspired by teammates' chants of "We get Ryalled up," 14-year-old Mary Rish swam away with five golds, while Kathy Kooser, a chunky 13-year-old, plowed to a 1:06.24 in the 100 breaststroke, not far off Marcia Morey's American record of 1:05.53.
Elated by these performances, Ryall Coach Bill Graves allowed that he was pointing Rish and Kooser toward the '76 Olympics. The 25-year-old Graves supplements his YMCA income by coaching at Wheaton College, and he is under no illusions about the challenges of being a Y coach. "The guy before me quit because he was getting married," Graves said. "He needed a real-life job."
Still, there are happy precedents. Mark Spitz started as an age-group swimmer at the Sacramento YMCA before switching to an AAU club. For a stronger tie to the Y, there was backstroker Gary Dilley, who competed for the Huntington, Ind. YMCA until leaving for Michigan State and a silver medal in the 1964 Olympics. Dilley was coached by Glen Hummer, whose Huntington teams have done so well—winning 11 men's YMCA team titles—that the polite thing would be to overlook last week's 10th-place finish. At poolside, squinting out at yet another phalanx of hopefuls churning through the water, the white-haired Hummer spoke of Dilley. "He was a talented boy but in a small town you can't count on too many of those," the coach said. "What you do with the others makes you kind of proud, too." Which, of course, is the whole point of YMCA swimming.