Brentwoodians have gathered at the since 1961, and for most of those years, swimmers from ages four up to 18 have competed on the Brentwood Gators swimming team.
Sean Dooley has been the head coach for the past 13 years; long enough to see some swimmers' entire Gator career.
“This is my first year of my ‘ittie-bitties,’ my 6-5 year-olds, being with me all the way from start to finnish,” he said. “I’ve obviously coached a lot of swimmers that have gone into college.”
The only qualification to join the team is to swim a length unassisted, even if it's doggie paddle. Dooley and his assistants will take it from there.
He said some of the swimmers might have some pressure from parents to swim, but “a good majority of them get here, and they really kind of latch onto it,” but he said the first week can be rough.
He tells the swimmers to give it a week before they decide if they like it or not.
“It’s kind of strenuous on a kid’s body,” he said, “but after a week their bodies kind of pick up on it, and they pick up on the team camaraderie.” He said there’s very little grumbling after a couple weeks, “unless it’s cold, then that’s just natural I think.”
Mary Burke has three children on the team. She and her kids commute from University City to the pool.
“If you have a 5 or 6 year old and they’re really new to swimming, after a week the transformation is amazing,” she said. “I think that’s partially the peer thing, they watch their friends do it, they get hands-on coaching, so it’s a very quick transformation.”
The season is six weeks long, which includes one meet each week. They’re part of Gateway Swimming, which includes pools from as far away as Union and Pacific, but most are in the metro area. The Gators compete against similar-sized teams because, in a meet, every event from every age group counts toward the team score.
Only the fastest heats count in the individual events, but in relays, all ages in all relays count for team points.
“That’s where they build up that team spirit,” Burke said. “They never swim better than when they swim in a relay, because their friends are cheering them on, and they’re motivated and they’re loving it. They’re doing it for each other, and they get to know each other.”
Burke said it takes about 35 volunteer parents to staff a home meet. Tera Gombas, a Brentwood mother of two swimmers, said parents take care of finances and the computer at the meets, and organize all of the volunteers.
“It’s not a one-person show, absolutely,” she said.
Geoffrey Berger is a sophomore at Kirkwood High School, where he qualified for the state meet in two events last year. He’s in his 11th year on the Gators.
“I love Sean, he’s a great guy,” Berger said. “We try to have everybody involved in the team with cheers at the beginning of every meet. Sean does a good job of that, trying to bring the six and under kids together with the high school kids.”
Berger has gravitated toward water polo at school, and Dooley said a lot of the swimmers are multi-sport athletes, especially the girls. He said basketball, lacrosse, field hockey, cross country and track are some of the other sports his swimmers are in.
Burke says there’s a lot of young families in Brentwood and the team is growing.
“For some, this this is just a summer community, people really pull together,” she said. “The kids know other kids from the team, parents get to know each other. It’s good karma.”