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Cullens have grown up around pools

As much as camping trips, Sunday dinners and their annual Christmas portrait sittings, competitive swimming is a bona fide family affair to Bill and Libby Cullen's brood. Dad was a two-event Southeastern Conference champion. Mom was a diver and now is a high school coach. Their children took to the water almost as early as they could walk, and all have swum or still swim competitively.

All eight of 'em.

"All the kids started out very young," said Libby, now in her third season as Lakewood High's coach. "We'd camp out when we went to meets because, being a large family, we couldn't afford a hotel.

"I'd stay at camp and watch the younger ones while the older ones went and swam. Then the little ones wanted to go and watch. And when they could, they'd swim, too. It just gradually evolved."

Though it took some time for every Cullen to get into the act, success eventually came to all. Daughter Beth, 25, was a standout backstroker for St. Petersburg Catholic. Kathy, 23, won multiple Junior Olympic, district and conference titles while at Lakewood a few years later.

Lee Ann, 20, qualified for the state meet in the backstroke as a high school swimmer. Bill, 19, was a solid freestyler. Christy, a Lakewood junior, is a Junior Olympic medalist and was a multiple-event participant at state last year.

More are on their way. Lee, a freshman, is in her first season on the Spartans girls team. Eddie, a sixth-grader, swims for St. Petersburg Aquatics. Jimmy, a fourth-grader, is in the city interpool program and will join SPA next year. All three also swim often at home in the family pool.

"I think those three enjoy swimming more than the older ones because right now they're only in it for pleasure," Libby said. "The older kids were always a little more intense about it."

That, they may get from their dad. Bill, now a senior engineer at Florida Power, was a member of the Fort Lauderdale Pine Crest team that won three straight state titles in the late 1950s. He attended the University of Florida on a full swimming scholarship, and _ as the Gators team captain _ won SEC titles in the 200-IM and the 100-backstroke in 1960.

And, ironically, the UF pool is where all this Cullen swimming stuff really got started.

"I was an Air Force brat diving for intramural and sorority teams and I needed to get some board time in," explained Libby, also a UF graduate. "So I was working out at the university pool one day while the guys were practicing. We got together and talked after practice "

And they've been together ever since.

Road service: The Largo Packers found themselves in a predicament while traveling to a dual meet against Gibbs last week. The team's bus broke down en route to the meet at Northeast, stranding 30 kids and coach Janet LaVassaur in a cloud of engine smoke along the shoulder of U.S. 19.

"We had no way to get there and no way to let Gibbs know we were going to be late," LaVassaur said Monday. "We were out there frantically waving for cars to stop but nobody would."

After 10 minutes, someone finally did. Local businessman Mark Thalman pulled over, at least alleviating the panic. Then he did a whole lot more.

Thalman, who recently bought two Pinellas County Domino's Pizza franchises, had six pizzas and 30 cokes delivered to the team _ gratis. He then contacted Pinellas school authorities to get a replacement bus on its way and then drove to Northeast to inform the Gladiators the Packers were still coming.

"I was completely shocked that he _ a total stranger _ did all this," said LaVassaur, whose swimmers abided by the don't eat-or-you'll-cramp adage and saved most of the feast for after the meet _ which they won. "On Thursday, he called me at school to make sure everything turned out okay. It was just unbelievable."

Rebels up, rising: The long-suffering Dixie Hollins swim team continued to acquaint itself with success Saturday, placing fourth in the boys competition and sixth in the girls at the St. Petersburg city championships.

Richie King and Christina Kennedy each won an event and placed second in another, and the boys 200 medley and 400 free relay teams also finished first. Brian Humphrey and Scott O'Dowd both contributed third-place finishes. Denise Novak added a fifth.

Pretty solid stuff for a program which has never had a winning record.

"They're all swimming so great," first-year coach Lisa Bitting said before the city meet.

"My boys are actually going to finish the season with a winning record. We have three meets left, and we're 4-4 now. I really think we're going to do it."