Rewards top challenges with league's youngest

Swimmers packed the lanes during an early morning practice last month at the Hidden Falls neighborhood, with youngsters following one after the other like ants.

Most cruised through the usual routine without struggle, except for one outside lane, the one dedicated to 6-and-under children, the tiniest competitors in the massive Gwinnett Swim League.

At an age where many kids are still trying to overcome fear of the water, these youngsters are learning to race. In some cases, not long after they learn how to swim.

One of those was Hidden Falls 5-year-old Lauryn Shaw, who worked harder than anyone else in the pool to cover its 25-meter length. Swimming with her head up out of the water, she flailed her arms and had to stop a few times to grab the side of the pool.

But she finished strong, flashing a big smile that outshines her sopping wet, goggled head.

"Way to go girl, great job," Hidden Falls coach Andrea Pugh, a rising senior at Mill Creek, screamed in encouragement.

What looked like problems to an outside observer was actually a major accomplishment. Just two weeks earlier, Shaw couldn't swim at all.

But the week before she completed 25 meters by herself for the first time and earned a ribbon, which she proudly keeps on her wall.

Each practice she gets better by amazingly large margins.

"I'm just thrilled to see her do something she's never done before," Lauryn's father, Bill Shaw, said. "She loves it. I think she just likes being in the water. And the coaches here make it better. She has a couple of coaches she absolutely loves."

It takes those coaches a little more effort on the 6-and-under swimmers, but that work typically brings the greatest rewards and most visible improvement. This isn't just shaving seconds off a best time, it's watching a child who can't swim learn it. Then watching that same child learn to race.

Those benefits far outweigh the challenges for coaches in the long-running league - which features 45 teams and almost 6,500 swimmers up to the age of 18 this summer.

Of those, close to 1,000 are 6-and-under children, some as young as 2 or 3. It's a pretty equal split in the league's youngest division this season, with 478 girls and 477 boys.

Some coaches enjoy working with the rookie swimmers so much, they can't give it up. Carole Cripe, an assistant with the Thunderbolts, has coached the Duluth-based team's 6-and-under swimmers every year since 1983.

"It has challenges, the biggest challenge is getting them to put their faces in the water," Cripe said. "They don't like to do that at first. It takes a lot of coaxing to work with them on that. But I love it. It's a lot of fun."

One glance at the Hidden Falls coaches makes that known. They grin as they watch the 6-and-unders and their less than perfect techniques.

As they jump in for races, some actually dive head first into the water. Others belly flop or just hop in feet first on starts.

Eventually they'll get it down. That's the payoff.

"I love doing this because I can teach them how to swim and be able to see it," Pugh said. "Look at Lauryn. At the beginning of the season, she couldn't swim. We thought we'd have to jump in and save her. But look at her now."

SideBar: Swimming

· What: Gwinnett Swim League Championships

· When: July 11-12

· Where: Georgia Tech Aquatic Center

· More photos: For a slideshow of the 6-and-under swimmers visits www.gwinnettdailypost.com.