PINELLAS PARK — The swimmers line up on the pool deck, stretching and twisting like contortionists. There are only 12 of them, enough to fill two in each of the six lanes. They enter the water and turn lap after lap, their arms slipping slowly, quietly in the water with each freestyle stroke.
The other strokes — butterfly, breast and back— will be mastered in time. For now, Dixie Hollins coach Amanda Shirley is focusing on the basics.
This is swimming 101 for the Rebels, who are assembling a team from scratch. Last year, the boys and girls programs were canceled because there was no coach and only one swimmer wanted to participate. It was the first time a varsity sport had been canceled by a county public school for lack of interest.
“It’s a challenge,” Shirley said. “But I like it.”
Shirley, a former swimmer at Osceola, would have taken the job last year. But she didn’t want to juggle the rigors of coaching as a first-year teacher. So she waited.
She had experience directing a team, after serving as president of the club swim team at the University of Florida.
“I knew how to organize a team, set practice schedules and run meets,” she said.
But nothing could have prepared her for this.
Shirley found out quickly how much work was needed. In the spring, she posted fliers and had interested students fill out questionnaires on how much they knew about swimming. Some swam at the beach or in the pool. Others had watched swimming in the Olympics.
“I had to give them videos and instructions on things they could do in the pool this summer,” Shirley said.
About 30 showed up for that first meeting. When school started three weeks ago, the number was down to six. Katya Linde, a freshman, was the only one who had experience in club and competitive swimming.
“It was nerve-racking at first,” Shirley said. “I had to start from the basics and build up. We began with breathing techniques and how to turn in the pool. After that, I introduced them to all of the strokes.”
Natalia Melgarejo, a senior, was one of the girls who joined.
“I had never tried any school sport before,” Melgarejo said. “I love swimming and thought it would be a good opportunity.”
At her first practice, Melgarejo got sick from the workout. She struggled to complete 50 yards in practice.
“It was hard at first, but I’ve learned not to give up so easily,” Melgarejo said.
Last week, Dixie Hollins had its first meet. There were not enough swimmers for relays and Shirley entered them in freestyle events because she feared they would be disqualified for not knowing the proper technique in the other strokes.
The Rebels lost. But the boys took the first three spots in the 50 free and the top two in the 100 free. On the girls side, Melgarejo placed third in the 50 free.
Chris Giron, a junior, placed in the top two in the 100 free.
“It was my first time in a meet,” Giron said. “I wasn’t nervous. There was just an adrenaline rush and everything hit me once I got in the water.”
The enthusiasm has helped the Rebels double their roster from six to 12 swimmers in the past two weeks.
“I’m going all around school and in classes and trying to get as many people as I can to come out,” Giron said.
Still, there are not enough swimmers to field relay teams. Because of that Dixie Hollins will skip the Total Team Relays, which start this weekend.
“We plan to be at that meet next year,” Shirley said. “Right now I’m just trying to introduce them to swimming and get them in shape. It’s been amazing to see how positive they’ve been and to see their willingness to come out and try something they had no experience in before.”
Bob Putnam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org