ST. PETERSBURG — Around the North Shore Pool, the swimmers waved banners emblazoned with colorful insignia, whooping, whistling and cheering.
The cheering continued, even when most swimmers had finished. Those lagging behind were not alone. Teammates threw their collective voice behind them, encouraging them as if they were in the lead.
It is one of the charming aspects of the Total Team Relay Challenge, this custom of embracing the stragglers as well as the superstars.
The meet, which Northeast has hosted since 1993, kicks off the swim season with relay events. But the more coveted prize is the spirit award, given to the team that cheers the loudest and shows the most sportsmanship.
For years, the spirit also included themes. Some were elaborate with floats that were as impressive as any at homecoming. And the competition was intense, sometimes too much for Northeast coach and meet founder Bill Burrows to handle.
"It was getting to the point where teams were really fighting for that award," Burrows said. "We wanted to get it back to its roots."
For the past two years, themes were scrapped. The spirit was judged more on the cheering and camaraderie among programs.
"It was designed to get kids fired up for their teams and excited about the season," Burrows said.
The 17 teams participating could not wait to get the relays started. Palm Harbor University swimmers were joined by others who arrived at the North Shore Pool parking lot at 4:30 a.m., more than four hours before the meet started and two hours before the gates opened.
To pass the time, swimmers cranked up the music and danced. And they whooped and hollered throughout the day.
The Hurricanes won the spirit award for the third straight year.
"This is about fun and coming together as a team," PHU coach Lisa Bitting said. "It's not just about how fast you can swim. There's a whole lot more to becoming a team than that."
As for the swimming portion, the Hurricanes won that, too. PHU's boys beat East Lake 432-392 for the team title. On the girls side, the Hurricanes outscored the Eagles 430-414.
PHU's Ryan McRae was the biggest point scorer, swimming a leg on four winning relays: the 200-yard medley, the 250 sprint crescendo (where the yardage builds up each leg), the 200 fly and the 200 back.