The CSRA Summer Swim League isn't quite what it used to be.
When it began in the early 1960s, fewer than 300 swimmers were on its five teams. The rules were scattered and clubs unorganized. The structure of the organization was flimsy. The pools had fewer dressing facilities and fewer lanes. There were fewer pools.
Today it's a whole different swim meet.
"The magnitude of this thing is incredible," CSRA Swim League President Gil Eustice said at a June 25 meet. "On any given Tuesday night there are more people at one of these than at any three of the area baseball games."
He's not exaggerating.
The CSRA Swim League now boasts 1,800 swimmers, and an organization of 22 teams, each based out of country clubs, subdivision and community pools. The league has four divisions, accommodating swimmers ages 4 to 18 from Richmond, Aiken and Columbia counties. The rules have been standardized for all divisions. And every Tuesday night in June and early July the league has more than 10 carefully orchestrated dual-team swim meets.
At a recent meet at Petersburg Racquet Club, the PRC Crocodiles swam against the Hammond Hills Hammerheads. Swimmers had the words "Eat My Bubbles," "Crocs Rock" and "Shark Attack" painted on their backs. More than 200 children swarmed around the pool, swapping high-fives and writing their race times on their arms with permanent markers. Parents warned them not to run on the wet pavement and distributed goggles and swim caps.
Mary Mattman, 17, has been swimming with the league for seven years, and swam in her final dual meetJune 25.
"I've been through four or five coaches, seen swimmers come and go, but I keep coming back," she said. "It's more fun with more people. You see more team spirit."
Mary said the friendly atmosphere is one of the biggest draws of summer league swimming.
"I dance and there's all kind of inter-company competition for the good spots. It's totally different here," she said. "Everyone here wants to cheer on everyone else; we all want our teammates to do well."
That kind of structure is why younger swimmers like the league, too, said Laura Kuhlke, a swim instructor for children ages 6 and under.
"With these kids, you can tell they want to be here, and they're excited to swim with friends," she said. "This is not just something their parents make them do."
Carter and Tanner Wilson, 5-year-old twins on the Petersburg team, nodded in agreement.
"I like doing the backstroke, but the best part was watching my brother win first place," Tanner said, his arm wrapped around Carter's shoulders during a meet. "And I've learned to float. Love to float."
The team also builds relationships between younger and older swimmers. Parents think this is another reason the league has grown.
"Giving these younger kids a chance to interact with the older kids - you can't beat that," said Eric Hope, a scorer for the Hammond Hills team, whose children Frank, 17, Sarah, 16, and Wayne, 13, all swim in the league. "When my kids were younger they had some great role models through this. I'm hoping they can pay back that debt by helping younger kids now."
Mr. Hope also said word of mouth has pumped the league during the past decade.
"A pleased parent tells another parent and he tells another parent, and it just grows," he said.
Mr. Eustice agreed, but added that Olympic exposure and recognition at the high-school level also has helped.
"Parent recommendations are still the No. 1 reason, though," he said. "We're here because parents talk back and forth."
The swim season - which began in early May - is winding down for the CSRA League. The division championships began Monday and will continue Thursday and Friday at 6 p.m. at Augusta Aquatics Center on Damascus Road. The top 16 finishers will go on to the All Star Champion Meet on Sunday.
After that, the league will start to prepare for next season.
"I think once people have been around a swim meet and see what it's like, they'll want to come back," Mr. Eustice said. "And we don't only want swimmers. The parent volunteer base needed to run this is just as incredible."
Those interested in getting involved with the CSRA Summer Swim League can call Gil Eustice at 855-5251