In the 2008 Olympics, Michael Phelps won a record eight gold medals for swimming. The next summer, membership in the Cabarrus County summer swim league increased from 600 to over 900. Coincidence?
Interest in the sport has been steadily growing for years in Cabarrus County. Now all eight county teams will be competing in the same conference.
There are over 300 students swimming in the Cabarrus County public schools, according to Concord swim coach Ray Morgan. Many of the conference teams had to make cuts after tryouts, simply because they didn't have room to practice in the pool.
Coach Debbie Benfield at Hickory Ridge, which opened in 2007, has had to do cuts the last two years just to get the team down to a manageable level. All eight teams have to share two county pools to practice and compete in, which isn't enough space for the amount of students who want to compete.
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Benfield said that the limited team size prevents her from being able to rebuild and get younger athletes ready to step up when the upperclassmen leave.
The coaches keep their roster around 40 members so that they can give each swimmer adequate time in the pool.
"We just don't have room to practice everybody," Northwest Cabarrus coach Bob Ringer said. Even after losing 23 of their 52 members to Cox Mill, which opened this year, the team reloaded to 34 swimmers.
"It has reduced our team size, but has give a number of swimmers at Northwest a new opportunity to be the leaders and the top swimmers on our team this year," he said.
Cox Mill has a large and strong team built around the swimmers form Northwest Cabarrus. Coach Jamie Carter has 42 swimmers and no seniors, which means she won't lose any athletes to graduation. The team is young but started out the year 3-0.
"We have some (swimmers) with swim experience in high school and summer league and others who are brand new to swimming but have already grown so much and proved to be an asset to the team," said Carter in an e-mail.
Jay M. Robinson has one of the largest and most talented teams in the conference. They have already broken five school records this year, one of which was broken by a freshman.
"I think this is the best team we've ever had," said coach Beverly Kopelic. "We should be able to get a lot more kids to regionals."
Concord, which has historically been one of the strongest teams in the conference, has a team that is 40 percent freshman and sophomores and 30 percent new members, according to Morgan.
"It will take a while to determine how all the new pieces of the puzzle fit in," said Morgan. His girls team is undefeated after three meets while the boys are 2-1.
Central Cabarrus has seen the most significant growth, going from less than 15 swimmers last year to 40 this year, according to Morgan.
The coaches aren't sure what has spurred the increase in interest in swimming in the county. Kopelic mentioned that it could be due in part to the "Michael Phelps effect," referring to the swimmer's record breaking performance in Beijing and the interest it garnered for swimming.
"More kids are swimming year round now," said Kopelic, referring to swimmers who compete with swim clubs in addition to their high school teams.
"I don't think it's one thing," said Ringer. "We have tried to put our finger on it, but I don't know if you can."
Benfield said that part of the draw might come from the individual accomplishment that comes with swimming. Even though it's a team sport, swimmers are constantly competing against themselves to get better times and break personal records.
Most of the swimmers in the county are friends and swim with each other in the summer, said Kopelic, so you see the teams mingling and cheering each other on at the meets.
"They like swimming against the kids they know," she said. They'll get their chance more often now with the new county conference.
Robinson and Central Cabarrus moved down from 4A and Mount Pleasant moved up from 2A. The South Piedmont is a strange mix with the largest 3A school in the state, Robinson, competing with the smallest 3A school in the state, Cox Mill.
"I think it's a good idea," Benfield said about the conference. "I hated those long drives."
The sport will most likely to continue to grow in the area with more kids trying out each year. But that's fine with the coaches, as long as they can get more pool space.
"The parents of the swimmers just really get behind the program," said Morgan. "If you're going to coach something, swimming is probably the best."