South Charlotte host families make swimmers at annual Arena Grand Prix feel at home

In a few weeks, south Charlotte families will open their doors to strangers who will wake up absurdly early, eat more than starving teenagers and spend much of the afternoon napping.

And the hosts couldn’t be more excited.

The guests will be in town for the annual Arena Grand Prix at Charlotte from May 15 through May 18, when 600 swimmers will compete at the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center in uptown.

Some of the registered swimmers include Olympians Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Elizabeth Beisel and Cullen Jones. College and high school athletes also compete.

During the annual SwimMAC event, formerly called UltraSwim, scores of athletes stay with host families rather than renting a hotel. This year, more than 100 athletes are expected to use this option, said Karen Darmody, a Raintree resident who helps match athletes and host families.

The home-stays provide students a chance to relax during the meet instead of being cramped in a hotel room. Athletes also can enjoy home-cooked meals instead of fast food, said Mary Webster, who works with Darmody.

“It gives them a place to stretch out and relax and feel like they’re in a home setting, as opposed to sitting in a hotel with just a TV and a bathroom,” Webster said.

Ballantyne resident Julie Stout said the visits are just as rewarding for local families, especially those who have younger children who swim.

Stout’s family signed up to be a host family for the first time last year, as a way of getting more involved in the local swimming community. The family had just moved from Louisville, Ky.

They were paired with Abby Chin, a sophomore from the University of Louisville – “a total fluke,” Stout said.

Chin’s stay left Stout feeling encouraged about how her youngest daughter, 12-year-old Alina, was progressing in her own swim career, said Stout.

Alina and Chin showed the same kind of discipline when it came to eating, sleeping and training habits.

“We realized that Alina is well on her way to laying the foundation for success as a high school and, hopefully, college swimmer,” said Stout. “Alina exhibited the same behavior as Abby, and it really showed us that Alina had set herself up with a solid foundation for future success in the sport.”

Chin is expected to stay with the Stouts again this year, and this time she’s bringing a fellow athlete.

Webster, who lives in Deerfield Creek, said it’s common for athletes to stay with the same family year after year and form a close connection. “Many of the swimmers develop friendships with the families,” she said. “They play with the kids, they play with the pets, they eat dinner together.”

And eat they do. Webster said one athlete who stayed with her said he had to consume 10,000 calories a day. “That’s a lot of muffins and bananas,” she said.

Providence Plantation resident Stacy Stranick can relate, joking that the athletes she’s hosted “don’t do a lot besides eating meals and taking naps.”

But the athletes also serve as role models to her younger children, said Stranick, whose youngest son, Jack, is a freshman high school swimmer.

“They shared experiences with Jack to show him that if he can continue to press on and work through some of the hard times of swimming, if he perseveres, he can continue and possibly swim at the college level, too,” said Stranick. “It’s an enjoyable experience to open up our home and help them out for a weekend.”

Darmody said it’s that mutually beneficial relationship formed between the athletes and the families that keeps her family participating.

“You look at these kids as role models for your own children, and it really makes you appreciate all the hard work that goes into sport,” she said. “And to see what nice people they turn into – it’s very gratifying to help be part of that.”