COLUMBIA — The tweet of a whistle followed by a series of splashes signaled the start of the Show Me Conference Championship swim meet Saturday morning.
Eagerly awaiting their children's turn to race, several excited parents lined the side of the pool. Dozens more relaxed in the shade of their pop-up tents, waiting for their children to be called to the start line. When they're not racing, the children waited in the roped-off bullpen area laughing with their teammates as they applied sunscreen.
Six Columbia-area youth swim teams competed at the Saturday swim championships, which is the last event of the season for the swimmers. More than 300 kids, ages 5 to 16, competed at the event held at the at the outdoor pool of the Missouri Athletic Center. Competitors compete with all different types of strokes, including backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. Teams also competed in relay races.
"Everybody feels accomplished at the end of the day," said Anne Sievers, coach of the Missouri Athletic Center Sharks, the meet's host team.
With long delays between races, the swimmers found creative ways of amusing themselves. Some of the kids decorated themselves with permanent markers before their event with images of American flags or their team mascot. A few had "Eat my bubbles" written across their backs.
"It's really cool for the swim meet, but bad for dinner afterwards," said Jason Swindle, the father of three swimmers.
The Show Me Conference provides a less competitive alternative to the Columbia Swim Club, which travels to meets in different states across the country. The season runs for a month, from early June through early July. This schedule requires less of a time commitment than other club swim teams, which can go year-round.
"The winter swim stuff is really competitive," said Mike DeArmond, grandfather to one of the competitors. "This is more for fun."
Getting hundreds of children through their races in a timely manner is no easy task. As the head coach of the host team, Sievers managed the meet, making sure all of the volunteers were in place and the events ran efficiently.
Sievers knows her way around a swim meet. She is a former Missouri assistant swim coach. Before that, she was a two-time Olympic Trials qualifier and an All-American at the University of Michigan. Her experience comes in handy when trying to make a competition go smoothly.
"You have to do the little things," Sievers said. "Like playing music between events."
Swim meets are often held between just two teams, but for the last event of the season all of the teams are invited to compete all at once. The meet is formatted like the Olympics, with competitors racing in heats to whittle down the number of swimmers before the last race.
The importance of the swim teams goes beyond athletics. The swimmers and their parents have formed a tight-knit community.
"All the kids know all the kids and all the parents know all the parents," said Brenda Wagner, who has two grandchildren on the Country Club of Missouri swim team.
Some of the parents have been involved with the swim culture for years, but others are just getting acclimated to the water.
Matt McCormick, the new president of the Chamber of Commerce who moved to Columbia in February, is getting his first taste of what being a swim dad is like. He said it's been a big help in getting to know his new home.
"This is a big, fun, family environment," McCormick said. "It's been really good for making new friends."
Supervising editor is Zachary Matson.