Community swim team in Cincinnati emphasizes community
By CAROL MOTSINGER
Aug. 18, 2018
CINCINNATI (AP) — It's the first day of swim practice, and no one is getting in the pool.
That's in the plan scribbled on a page in coach Jane Spooner's spiral notebook.
That's the line she repeats, over and over, to the kids squirm-sitting in a circle on the concrete at Ziegler Park.
Still, they reply, over and over, "Can we swim?"
This is the first hour of what will be 43 hours of practice, and the 24-minutes-old swim team is already challenging the expectations written on lined paper.
They have another idea of what they should do and what they can do. And that no matter what, they will do it together.
By 10:40 a.m. that May morning, the team, the brand new Over-the-Rhine Rhinos, sits along the walls of the shallowest end of the pool, pairs of eager feet dipping in the water.
The group of 19 that day are as old as 13 and as young as 4.
Some walked here from their apartments in the surrounding city. Some drove in from homes in Bond Hill.
They don't know each other's names, and most of them do not even know how to swim.
Some don't know how to float. Or how to hold their breath. Or even how to put their faces in the water.
In the next two months, that will change.
But other things won't. And those are also the things that make these Rhinos and this summer meaningful.
Like that what counts here has nothing to do with the time it takes to swim from one wall to the other.
That winning, it will turn out, doesn't mean beating someone else.
An illustration of a mermaid kitty hangs at Emily Stowe's desk at the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. offices.
A kid drew it as the mascot of the Ziegler Park's new Over-the-Rhine swim team in a meeting led by the nonprofit development group that runs the pool.
Stowe led these discussions, aiming to ensure the park — 4.5 acres nudged between Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton — and its programming meet the needs of this changing community.
That partly means the swim team is free, safe and belongs to anyone of any ability, of any background.
Now, after the first two practices, Stowe knows that contradictory mermaid kitty wouldn't have been an unfair representation.
These swimmers are both destined for water — like the mermaid — and well, terrified of it — like most cats.
It's also made clear that this is a new experience for everyone. And who they are as a team isn't always going to make sense. The pieces won't exactly match.
3CDC has never organized a swim team. The coaches have never coached. Most of the swimmers have never swum.
To succeed, the adult leaders will have to be creative.
They will have to embrace their inner mermaid kitties.
With that drawing nearby, Stowe makes her first adjustment: She's got to find volunteers to help the coaches out.
There were expecting maybe 20 kids. But by the third day, 40 sit in a circle on the concrete at 10 a.m.
After some phone calls and texts and emails, Stowe has a dozen helpers lined up to assist at one of the five hour-long practices each week.
She is one of them.
They will take the lead from three coaches.
There's Coach Jane (Jane Spooner). She's an art teacher. She gives the best hugs and offers the best encouragement. Tears are her cue.
There's Coach Emma (Emma Vansteenkiste). She's also a teacher, and she's organized. She establishes routines like those warm-up stretches.
She's got the loudest voice, so she yells to get the swimmers' attention — "If you can hear my voice, clap once" — and that final "Go, Rhinos!" shout in the pre-meet huddle.
And there's Coach Ludo (Ludovico Corsini).
He's the swimmer, but he never swims during practices.
He swam for the University of Cincinnati, graduating this year with a computer science degree. He holds the school record in the 100 breaststroke at 54.07 seconds.
Born in Milan, Coach Ludo has dual citizenship in Italy and Mozambique, so he's ranked in Italy and held national records in Mozambique. He's competed in the Short Course World Championships.
He's the timer, keeping pristine records from the meets. He titled it "OTR Rhinos Time Progression."
Coach Ludo is the one who shows the Rhinos how to streamline — that's keeping the arms long and straight and fast underwater. He tells them to keep their heads down.
He doesn't say much. When he does, it's either cracking a joke — the kids love it when he purposely calls them the wrong name — or dishing out punishment for those not listening to Coach Emma or Coach Jane, 10 push-ups at a time.
It's the third day of practice, and Elsa McEwan knows how to swim.
She's 6, almost 7. She's thought about this day her whole life.
Just three days ago, she didn't think she would ever learn how to swim. Now, she can, and she feels a lot better.
Elsa can now make what Coach Emma calls "white water" when she kicks her feet just so. She can float and flip and turn.
She makes bubbles underwater when she "bobs" — that's when the little kids' team goes down and up in the shallow end.
When she lets go of the wall, Elsa thinks about how she can do it. What it's going to be like on the other side.
This is the day she learns to be confident, too, she says.
She doesn't want to keep this to herself. She wants to share. I want to give this all away, she says. I want other people to know how to do it.
The Rhinos line up on the wall on June 8, the ninth day of practice.
That's how the drill starts, sitting on the side of the pool. Next, they will leap, flip and float.
We are going to take turns, Coach Jane says. Who wants to start?
All the arms raise.
"Only one of you can go first," she says.
It's 11 a.m. on June 15, and that means practice is done for the day at Ziegler Park.
A boy shivers, wrapped in a towel that hits the concrete. He stands under an umbrella at the coach's table.
He is a younger brother of a Rhino, still too young to join the team.
Without a word, Coach Ludo picks the boy up. He places him in the sun for more warmth.
Deaarion Glenn's right arm grips onto the lane divider.
The other pulls underwater. His feet kick. His head leans back.
The 9-year-old is not moving forward. He is also not stopping.
He has been in the Pleasant Ridge pool for about two minutes. This is his first race at the first meet, and he is the only one left in a lane.
This is the 50-meter freestyle race, so one lap, back and forth. Deaarion, on his way back, is maybe 20 meters from the wall.
There, five of his teammates crowd the timekeeper seated at the end of the lane.
They clap, they yell, they shake their fists, they jump. Occasionally, a few words surface above the bedlam: "Go" and "Deaarion."
This is the Rhinos' first swim meet. This is week three. And this is the moment they become a team, even though they don't have their swimsuits and swim caps yet.
They are fearless in the pool. They are fearless outside of it, full of love and not afraid to share it.
Deaarion's face is still above the water. He sees them and he knows this is all for him.
His right arm releases its grip.
He is moving forward.
The timer is now about 2:30 minutes when he stops once more, the right arm hooking onto the divider. He is 10 meters, maybe five of his doggy paddles, from the finish.
The Rhinos clap, they yell, they shake their fists, they jump. Coach Jane crouches down toward the water.
Deaarion releases his grip. Three big strokes and he now clings to the wall.
The stopwatch reads 3:29.06.
His tears are indistinguishable from the pool water. His breath is heavy.
He still clings to the wall when the applause ends.
"All swimmers must leave the pool area if they are not swimming," says a voice through speakers at the Pleasant Ridge pool. "The judges are having a hard time seeing the races."
It's a message meant for the Rhinos, a half dozen or so of whom who are right next to the pool, screaming and clapping as soon as a Rhino jumps in.
That's apparently against the rules.
"I didn't know there were even judges," Coach Jane says, just as Jack Bethune and the rest of the cheering squad, all dressed in black Cincy Shirts Rhinos tees, move one step behind the yellow line.
Jack isn't swimming at all this meet. He's not quite ready to swim yet.
He's shy about swimming anyway, he says.
He's shy about a lot of things. Jack, who's 7-and-a-half, brought a book to read today — "Trouble River" by Betsy Byars — but he doesn't end up opening it.
Because he and teammate Mosaiah Epps either play iPhone games together against the nearby fence or he's right here, cheering.
For Jack, cheering looks like silently shaking his clenched fists. It might just seem like silence because he is quieter than his teammates. He's a creek next to an ocean.
He calls this shyness, too. It is really gentleness. Jack just hasn't learned that yet.
Another Rhino steps to the edge of the line.
Jack raises his fists in the air.
The Rhinos are jumping off the diving board at the end of practice on July 6. Or, at least, they are standing on the end of the plank.
This is the deep end.
This is scary and different. The water is darker here and farther — like four feet- away.
Four feet, after all, is as big as most of these Rhinos. The team bags that hold their swimsuits, caps and goggles are bigger than many of their bodies.
Coach Emma is as close as she can be, just a few feet away, treading water below the board.
"You can hold onto me," she assures them. "I can hold on to you."
Jack's body shakes on the end of the board. He's been standing there for about a minute.
The cheering poolside — "Go, Jack, Go!" ''Go, Jack, Go!" ''Go, Jack, Go!' — gets louder, fuller each second.
He has never been up on the diving board. He has never jumped.
"Go, Jack, Go" makes him feel less lonely, he says later. It's harder for him to be shy when he doesn't feel alone.
He sees himself jumping in his mind. He imagines himself in the air.
His body shakes as his feet leave the plank.
It's a Friday, so this is Ben Yisrael's favorite day in the pool.
It is a day they play freeze tag in the water, and any day the Rhinos do that is the 10-year-old's favorite day.
The coaches call it Fun Friday.
Ben is here all the other days. Pretty much every day, actually.
He breakdances by himself and is always losing his goggles.
He cut his hair to look like Bart Simpson. He speaks without raising his hand and he speaks a lot — he has opinions about "Minecraft" and "Star Wars" and pretty much anything on YouTube right now.
And when he's done talking, he writes essays about it all, he says.
Ben's brain is full, and it is busy. He worries about his mom listening to him and whether his handwriting will improve.
And he only worries when he's not swimming.
Then, he thinks about nothing. His busy brain stills, slows down, just as his body moves.
He calls it a "detox."
It's minutes before the Rhinos host their first home meet July 18. So, just enough time to have a dance party, it seems, to the Jason Derulo song playing on the speaker system at Ziegler Park.
"One more minute of crazy dancing," Coach Ludo says as he walks past the frenzied circle, just as a few kids collapse into their giggles on the concrete.
"You've got to save some energy."
The crazy dancing continues for another seven minutes and 14 seconds.
It's now 9 a.m. July 28.
The rest of the team's league in the Cincinnati Recreation Commission is at the city finals today.
The coaches decided the Rhinos should do their own meet instead.
Each team can only enter two swimmers in each age group and each event. The Rhinos have too many swimmers in too few categories to participate.
So, they came up with the 2018 Rhino Championship instead, with the 30 swimmers divided into two teams.
The coaches want everyone to swim and everyone to get a ribbon.
They want them to be back next year.
But this morning, one thing is most wanted: Mosaiah Epps to swim a lap.
Mosaiah, 6, is at most practices, but he's never competed in a meet.
He is loud, but he always puts his fingers in his ears when the other kids cheer loudly.
He tries to push coaches into the pool, but when he's in the water, he wraps his arms around Coach Emma's neck.
Mosaiah tries to run everywhere, and when he does swim, he's just thinking about ice cream, he says.
Right now, he stands at the edge of the pool.
"You can do it," Coach Emma tells him. He's moved closer to the lane, but he's still saying he isn't going to swim. "You've done it before."
Mosaiah's crying as his feet dangle in the pool. Coach Jane stands in the lane in front of him.
"You can do this," she says. "Push off the wall. I'm right here."
He lowers his body into the pool.
Derrick Thomas, 8, stands at the lane again. His teammates are lined up for an individual medley.
He loves the backstroke. That's what he does in the relay. It's his own version of it.
Yes, he is on his back. But he doesn't move his arms, just kicks. Derrick moves at an angle until he hits the lane line.
His smile faces the sky.
This morning, at the last meet, Derrick wants to do it all in the individual medley, all the four styles.
He doesn't say out loud what he wants. He stands. He waits. He smiles.
Coach Ludo notices. He always does.
"Do you want to swim this?" he asks.
"Get in," Coach Ludo says.
She followed directions every day, Coach Emma says. She worked so hard. She improved so much.
That's why Elsa won the Coach's Award Aug. 1 at the team's party. The final hours of the final day.
And then Deaarion earns Most Improved. He cut more than two minutes from his first meet time of over three minutes. He learned to start swimming and not stop.
It's Derrick who wins the Non-stop Swimming Award.
Jack gets the Conquering Fears Award.
There is one more award "for someone who we think was exemplifying everything that we want swimming to be," Coach Jane says.
We could always hear his voice, above all the rest, cheering on his teammates. Some days, he arrived at the pool before the coaches.
He was scared, but he finally swam a lap Saturday.
The coaches named it the Rhino Award, and it belongs to Mosaiah.
The Rhinos stand along the side of the pool.
This will be the last moment of the season. They are ending just as they began.
"Are you ready to jump in?" Coach Emma yells.
Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer, http://www.enquirer.com