GCSL fuels year-round, high school programs

Each year the cycle flows perfectly in area pools as a nearly seamless relationship between three entities combine to form a swimming mecca.

Youngsters find a love for the sport in the long-running Gwinnett County Swim League, feeding the most committed athletes into year-round programs like SwimAtlanta, a Gwinnett-based club that is the nation's largest. Those kids come back together for their high school teams, fueling the county's continued dominance of the Georgia High School Association meet.

The summer league, year-round and high school coaches have formed a good working relationship -- each sharing swimmers' time for practices and meets -- that allow all three to compete at the highest of levels. Schedules are rearranged. Practices are missed. Whatever it takes to help Gwinnett's large contingent of youth swimmers reach goals.

"We have a lot of little kids (in summer league) who find that swimming is the sport they want to do," said GCSL president Tim Vander Wood. "So they pick up year-round swimming and they do high school swimming. And then they come back to us as coaches, assistant coaches and role models for the younger kids."

Vander Wood's league, which kicks off its 38th year this week, is the base for local year-round and high school programs. It's why Gwinnett has produced two Olympians, numerous college swimmers and 16 high school state championship teams since 2000.

A fresh crop of swimmers, some as young as 5, sign up each summer for the GCSL, while others return year after year. Neighborhood and community pools in the area are slammed every Thursday night from late May to July with competition and a festival-like atmosphere. It all leads up to the season-ending county championship meet, a two-day event scheduled again this year for Georgia Tech's aquatic center.

The GCSL's popularity with parents and children alike is why it is one of the nation's largest, with nearly 6,300 children registered this summer.

"We've got kids now who would rather swim in the Super Bowl, we call it the Super Bowl, not the Gwinnett County summer league championships, than swim in our senior state championship meet," SwimAtlanta coach and founder Chris Davis said. "It's more exciting. They get more attention. They're the stud. And they get a lot of really, really good support there."

The large summer-league base has made Atlanta into one of the nation's best areas for swimming talent, with Gwinnett being the prime example. The GCSL has spawned numerous swimmers to clubs like Davis' SwimAtlanta, which has emerged as a nationally respected power and has produced two Olympians, Amanda Weir and Eric Shanteau, both of whom also swam in Gwinnett's summer league.

Atlanta's heavy summer-league presence is why Davis and his business partner picked the area to start a club in 1977. The massive growth since those days forced SwimAtlanta from its former home base, a 7,500-square foot building in Lilburn, to its Sugarloaf facility, a 28,500-square foot facility that opened in 2001.

"Swimmers don't join us to win Olympic medals, they join us with aspirations to romp and stomp next summer, which is cool," Davis said of his year-round program. "If you take away summer league, USS Swimming in Georgia and high school swimming in Georgia is nowhere near the same. It's not even close."

Davis said his club is known for producing great relay teams, which he attributes largely to swimmers competing for years in the GCSL.

"It all starts in the summer league," Vander Wood said. "It's where these kids find their love of the sport. Without summer league, I don't know how many would get right into year-round swimming. They just would never find it."