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Shiloh's relay team swimming against the odds

Photo by Brandon Brigman

Photo by Brandon Brigman

SNELLVILLE -- Ben Taylor relishes an upset.

One of the four swimmers on Shiloh's 200 freestyle relay team, Taylor sees the looks he and his mates get.

"We surprise people," the sophomore and only non-senior on the relay said. "They come stand next to us and are like, 'We'll beat them.' Then we win."

First, just two are built like swimmers.

Senior's Blaine Street and Rakeem Gayle fit "the look." Neither overwhelm you with height, but both are lean with broad shoulders. Taylor is more thin than lean, skinny even for a swimmer. Then, there's Nick Bingham. The 6-foot-3 football defensive end didn't start swimming until a year ago, and though his time in the pool whisks away his football girth, he towers over his teammates with both size and height. The least experienced swimmer on the team paces it in the pool with a 24.83-second split in the relay.

When he started last season, he took 30-plus seconds in the sprint.

This is a team full of surprises.

They don't train separately from their high school team, only two started swimming before high school and they are all black.

Race is not a statistic kept by the Georgia High School Association, but Shiloh's longtime swimming coach Paul Callis is operating under the belief this is the first all-black relay team to qualify for the state meet in Georgia. It's the first he knows of in his 15th

season at Shiloh and he was previously a graduate assistant at Tennessee.

Perspective grows with a person, so for this team of teenagers being in the small company of black state qualifiers in Georgia is more of a mild interest and a driving force.

"No one in my family swims really. I was thrown in the pool. I had to learn how to swim out of fear. When I found out we had a swim team at Shiloh, my mom said I should try it," said Bingham, who admits his pride in being the first one in his family to be a swimmer. "I got pretty good. I didn't know anything about the sport and this year has gotten better."

When the news hit the student body at Shiloh, they had to answer some questions amid the praise. Students were paying attention to a team many didn't know existed.

"When you go around school and tell people you are a swimmer, they are like, 'OK, I didn't even know Shiloh had a team. I didn't know black people could swim,'" Street said. "When we made state it was proving that black people can swim and we can swim fast. We don't just play basketball and football."

Street's father, William, swam growing up and he put his son in the pool at age 6. But even the lifelong swimmer needed convincing to join the team.

"I didn't swim my freshman or sophomore year because I was lazy. I was just going home and going to sleep and I thought I may as well try out for the swim team," Street said. "I met a couple of people on the swim team and they said, 'You should come out, it's fun.' I started going to the practices and went to the first meet. It was just something fun to do."

Swimming is more than fun now.

Street, the quietest of the four, swam the final leg when the team qualified for state. He saw the time, then the two years of work bubbled out of him.

"I got out of the pool and started screaming, 'Yes! Let's go!,'" he said. "I was happy because I didn't think we were going to make state."

Gayle thought otherwise. To hear him retell the state-qualifying day it comes together with a cinematic flair.

"We were listening to a lot of Lil' Wayne, 'No Ceilings.' We were all pumped up and my track coach came and I said to him, 'Want to see me make history? We are about to make state,'" Gayle said. "We saw it right on the clock and we were like 'OOOOHHH!' Blaine got up, the quiet one, yelling. 'We are the best!' Nothing that night could have brought us down."

"No Ceilings" is an apt title for this group. Whether they are making history or not, barriers don't break them. They don't have summer teams or personal training sessions. Their training center at Gwinnett Aquatics, while suitable, falls short of the standards set at other aquatic centers around Gwinnett County. They swim their meets where Parkview practices and when they face the larger programs they see the differences in numbers alone.

"When you go against teams like Parkview and Brookwood they come with thousands and we come with like 20," Street said. "And our relay made state just off the 20 swimmers we have. That is a good look for us."

Shiloh owns the 200 free relay. The school has won state twice in the race and placed in the top 10 nine times under Callis. The 1994 state title team still holds the state record.

"There is a lot of success in Shiloh's past," Callis said. "When you get kids willing to practice and work hard you can get to state. It's not a talent problem. It was a commitment problem."

These four are not at that level. But Shiloh swimming is rebuilding itself again. It has not placed in its premier event since 2007 and has not been in the top 10 since 2004.

It's an achievement to build on. Both because of its noteworthy racial breakthrough and the tangible proof it offers of Shiloh's swimming potential.

Callis plans to use the swimmers to recruit students in Shiloh's feeder middle school. To give them a role model.

Three of the swimmers on this team won't return next year -- Bingham off playing college football, Gayle and Street possibly swimming in college. That leaves Taylor left to continue surprising.

Not surprisingly, the final push of motivation this team needed came from Taylor's mother, Chris.

"Ben's mom, she motivated me to come to practice and telling me I had to work hard," Street said. "Plus, she said she would take us whitewater rafting. We made state so she is supposed to be taking us."

That trip will come in the spring. After the trip to state where they are after a top-20 finish.

Or maybe another surprise.

"When people see Shiloh they expect good things from this relay," Callis said. "I told them, 'Let's not disappoint them.'"