Swimmers are easy to identify in the parking lot at Westminster School, host of the state championship meet: They’re the kids in the big fuzzy parkas and flip flops.
The water sport is a winter sport in Georgia’s high schools, and has been since it was introduced as a GHSA-sanctioned sport in 1932.
Why is swimming, which is enjoyed by nearly all recreational participants in the spring and summer, saved for the coldest time of the year on the high school schedule?
Pete Higgins, 76, who has coached Westminster swimming for 50 years and perhaps is the state’s leading historian on the sport, had the short and long answers.
“Swimming is a winter sport because that was the same time that the college teams competed, and the high schools just followed in line, ” Higgins said.
The longer explanation had to do with a numbers game among male athletes in the early years. Swimming was a male-only sport in Georgia until 1953. With football anchored in the fall, and other sports such as baseball and track and field reserved for the spring, winter was the best time to attract top-tier athletes.
“It would actually be more cost-effective and easier to have swimming in the summer or fall because teams would be able to use neighborhood pools for part of the season instead of having to use just a few pools, ” Hillgrove coach Nicole Bisesi said.
This year, roughly 200 schools fielded swim teams, but only 18 had indoor pools. The other teams share facilities at recreation departments, community centers, colleges or rival high schools.
Westminster, host to the state championship for the ninth year in a row, had a new facility built in 2000. Higgins laughs when he thinks about the early days, when he had to erect a tent-like structure over an outdoor pool for the winter competition.
“You had to deal with three very interesting things: it was dark, it was dirty and it was still cold, ” he said.
These days, the indoor pools are still cold, at least for a few minutes, because it has been so cold outside for the past two months. It takes a swimmer a few minutes to acclimate his or her body from near-freezing temperature to dealing with a facility that is 80 to 85 degrees.
Woodward coach Jenny Hanson has her team do a few exercises to adjust to the change. “We always have push-ups, plans, sit-ups and the occasional lunges, ” she said. “As I tell my swimmers, the hardest part is just getting into the pool. Once that’s over, the rest is just, well, swimming.”
The biggest drawback to winter swimming is leaving the warm pool area. Most high school students are in a rush to leave as soon as practices or competition ends.
“If you’re a girl with long hair, it will take 30 minutes to two hours for it to dry completely, ” Marist diver Margot Hillyer said. “No one is going to wait that long. You just dry it the best you can, and run as fast as you can to your ride.”
North Springs coach Julie Ferris said she was a high school swimmer when “my hair froze on the way to the car after a meet one time.”
Most swimmers, however, are just fine with doing laps in the winter. They think it’s the athletes from the spring sports who have it worse. Track and tennis teams start practices in January.
“They are outside and when it’s really cold, there’s nowhere from them to go, ” Wesleyan swimmer Will Gregory said. “On days like that, it’s nice to be inside and be a swimmer.”
State championship swim meet. Tuesday: 6 p.m., Class AAAAA. Thursday: 6 p.m., Class A-AAAA. Where: Westminster School. Cost: $7