ST. PETERSBURG — Sabrina Bousfiha, Colleen Mangan, Sarah Savage and Rachel Dagit are in front of the elevated stands, their East Lake teammates grouped in front of them on the North Shore Pool deck ready for a call-and-response cheer.
“I believe that we will WIN!” the senior quartet chants, their team’s response rebounding back to them ten-fold, back and forth, over and over.
It’s 7:30 on a Saturday morning, almost two hours before the start of the meet, and spirit is the driving purpose of the Total Team Relay Challenge, now in its 30th season.
“The meet's not important (competition-wise) but it's the most fun,” Mangan said. “We've been trying to hype the team up all season, working on cheers after practice.”
The energy is impressive, especially considering most of the Eagles were supporting the football team in their battle with rival Palm Harbor University less than 12 hours earlier.
“We're used to sleep deprivation,” Savage said. “We usually only get two hours of sleep with school work and activities, but all the way here, we've been jamming out, getting ready.”
Add on a poolside DJ pumping out four decades of hits during the races, then multiply it all by the cacophony that 16 boisterous, shouting, dancing teams provides and the energy level blows sky high.
“It's amazing,” Tampa Prep's Christian Perez said. “The whole pool gets loud and it gets the whole team going.”
Added teammate Logan Tirheimer: "And for most of the kids (on the team), it’s their first meet. It’s a great introduction to competition. It’s not about ourselves, it’s about the push to succeed as a team.”
The sophomore pair joined with freshmen Andrew Steiner and Wyatt Fulton to win the 200-yard breaststroke relay, part of a fourth-place team finish for the Terrapins.
“It’s a good springboard into the season, no pun intended,” said Tampa Prep coach Jason Bowes, who is dealing with a smaller, younger roster this year. “We get to feel out our squad, see where we are and what we have.”
The competitive angle, both in cheering and swimming, plays a big role in the meet and Palm Harbor University takes pride in a long run of success in both.
“We have a streak of winning the past 10 years and we're trying our best to repeat,” said sophomore Camden McArthur, who had a hand in victories in the 4x100-yard individual medley, the 200 butterfly and 100 medley relays. “I've been practicing and working out hard this summer (with club team Palm Harbor YMCA) and fall and I feel good (to start the high school season).”
PHU continued its stranglehold of the top spots at the Total Team Challenge as the girls won 10 of the meet’s 11 events (St. Petersburg took the 200 backstroke relay) to easily fend off runnerup Charlotte while the male squad prevailed in six events to edge out St. Petersburg (two event titles) 368 points to 338. Shorecrest Prep placed third for both girls and boys.
The ’Canes also took home the spirit trophy for Class 4A.
“We have 77 people on our roster, some that swim and others that are here just to cheer,” said PHU coach Lisa Bitting. “Not everyone is the fastest but everyone can have spirit. It starts at the first dual meet and it never stops all year."
Bitting gave kudos to Brazilian transfer student Maya Okuyama for an outstanding effort as the junior was involved in four winning relays.
“She's a synchronized swimmer who can also speed swim,” Bitting said. “She did a great job.”
Other team spirit winners were Shorecrest (Class A), host Northeast (2A), St. Petersburg (3A) and Saint Stephens (overall).
And at 1 pm, over five hours after it started, East Lake was still cheering.