Special Photo Berkmar swimming and diving coaches Erica Porten (left) and Polly Mitas are restarting the Huntington team in the Gwinnett County Swim League. It will be the only GCSL team located within the Berkmar cluster.
What: Huntington Sea Dragons registration
When: Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday 1 to 5 p.m.
Where: Berkmar High School lobby/main entrance
More information: huntingtonseadragons.swim-team.us
Of note: Huntington is restarting its team in the Gwinnett County Swim League this summer when it will become the only GCSL team in the Berkmar cluster
LILBURN — "Coach, why is everyone so much better than we are?"
That was the tough question posed to Berkmar swimming and diving coach Erica Porten back in January, after another high school meet against another experienced Gwinnett County team, by a group of her swimmers. Some schools excel in certain sports more than others, and Berkmar, at the moment, isn't exactly a swimming power.
Just two years ago, the Patriots had five students on the roster. That grew to 15 the following season and up to 30 for the 2012-13 season, when Porten and Polly Mitas shared the coaching duties. Of their 30 swimmers, 20 had never even been in a pool before.
As for that tough question, the coach returned an honest answer.
"I said, 'Well guys, they've been swimming since they were three years old and you've been swimming for 3 months,'" said Porten, in her first year of teaching deaf and hard of hearing students at Berkmar after working previously at Norcross Elementary. "I went home and started thinking about it. I started summer league swimming when I was 3. That's what they were missing. I started looking to see if there was a team in the area and there wasn't. Anywhere."
From there, Porten made it a mission to start a Gwinnett County Swim League summer team in the Berkmar cluster.
The hardest part came first --finding a neighborhood with a lap pool that was interested in a team. After six weeks of inquiries, and plenty of negative responses or no responses at all from neighborhoods, the 2002 New Atlanta Jewish Community High School (now the Weber School) grad found a home for her team at Huntington, a subdivision off Burns Road, just around the corner from Berkmar.
Huntington had a long-running GCSL team, with adjoining neighborhood Beaver Hills, that folded in 2004. Unlike the others that Porten approached, the Huntington residents were very interested in restarting the team.
The team's revival also excited those connected to the previous team like Colby Bross, now a fifth-grade teacher at Parsons Elementary. Bross, a 1995 Berkmar grad, began swimming for the Huntington team in 1988 and coached it for nine years after high school.
"I'm really interested in the team," Bross said. "I check their Facebook often. ... I think having a neighborhood pool and a swim team is awesome in the summer. It's great for the neighborhood, for parents to get out and get to meet each other. I'd love for it to work out. I still feel very invested in the team."
All the excitement couldn't get Huntington past its next hurdle. The GCSL doesn't allow new teams into the league with four-lane pools or smaller. That uncertainty was eventually solved when measurements of the pool determined it was big enough to hold five lanes, so the GCSL granted the newly dubbed Sea Dragons entry for this summer, with the idea that the pool will be resurfaced and repainted with five lanes before the 2014 summer season.
The summer league is thrilled with the addition of Huntington, which will be the first in the 45-team league located in the Berkmar cluster. Porten and Mitas, a Berkmar culinary arts teacher who also coaches track and field, are heading up the project as volunteer co-coaches.
"In addition to being the president of the GCSL, I am also the primary team council representative for the team on which my sons swim," GCSL president Brian Beckman said. "In both capacities, I inherited systems that had been fully functional for decades and yet it still requires an intense dedication to simply maintain these entities, let alone to grow and improve them. I can't imagine the level of commitment and passion that the leadership group of a new team like Huntington's must have to build a viable swim team from scratch. It is simply extraordinary.
"They are an excellent illustration of what servant-leadership looks like because, at the end of the meets, their only reward will be getting to watch their swimmers learn to thrive in the water and the land of life. What a gift."
For all they've overcome so far, the Sea Dragons aren't there yet. What they need now are swimmers, ages 4 to 18, to join them. Actually, they will take non-swimmers, too, with the plan to teach them how to swim before the season is over.
Nearly 20 swimmers off the Patriots' high school team have committed to Huntington, but that number could grow greatly when registration begins this weekend at Berkmar. Sign-ups, in the high school lobby, will be held Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.
"It's so up in the air, we could be as small as 50 this year or we could be as big as 75 to 100," said Porten, who coached the previous two summers at Jones Bridge/River Station. "We're the only team in the Berkmar cluster. Our assistant principal, George Zaun, sent flyers to every principal in the cluster, all the elementary, both the middle schools and we've been advertising here. It's out there."
More than 6,500 young swimmers participated in the GCSL last summer, but none of them swam for a team in the Berkmar cluster. That has been evident on the Patriots' inexperienced high school teams, but it's something Porten and Mitas aim to change, starting this summer.
Summer league teams feed successful high school programs throughout Gwinnett, and Huntington's rebirth could do the same for Berkmar. It gives youngsters in the cluster a place to learn to swim and have fun, while also offering a neighborhood a centerpiece activity it lost years ago.
"The neighborhood is thrilled," Porten said. "They had a team for so long and it dissolved. They're really ready to get back into it and make their pool more enjoyable for everyone. ... It's so different from high school swimming. It's so much fun. I think the kids will get into it. I think the excitement of summer league will excite them more for high school. They get to watch the middle-schoolers grow up and join them. Then watch the little ones grow up and swim with us.
"The (neighborhood) council has been great. It's a lot of work. We still have a long way to go, but they're excited. They've been so supportive. If there's anything I need, I know they'll be there to support us."
Will Hammock can be reached via email at email@example.com. His column appears on Thursdays. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/willhammock.