Inexperienced swim team competing for grant



There was just one problem when Erica Porten took over as Gwinnett County’s Berkmar High School swimming coach this season: Most of her team could barely swim.

About two-thirds of the 30-member squad had only been swimming for a few months when Porten became coach midway through the season.

“They were just barely making it across the pool,” Porten said of her Berkmar swimmers. “It was bizarre to me. But we made it through our season. We struggled through our season.”

Now Porten is trying to speed the evolution of her team by entering it in the county’s summer swim league. And she’s hoping for the community’s votes to help keep them in the water.

Porten’s team is one of 200 organizations in a nationwide competition to win $25,000 grants through the State Farm Neighborhood Assist program — culled from 3,000 original entries. The 40 organizations receiving the most votes on Facebook will receive the grants.

Porten’s team currently is 45th in the voting; the contest ends April 22 and winners will be announced April 29.

A longtime competitive swimmer who teaches deaf and hard-of-hearing students at Berkmar, a school where low family income makes many students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, Porten said she applied for the grant on a “whim.”

But before that could even happen, she had to find a pool her team could call home. And that was a lap against the current.

Porten sent about a dozen requests asking neighborhood pools to adopt her team. She received one response, from the Huntington subdivision in Lilburn, which lost its summer swim team 10 years earlier.

Porten’s team will be called the Huntington Sea Dragons and will be open to swimmers from ages 3 through 18.

Janet Tobin, who heads up the subdivision’s recreation club, said the pool hasn’t been used much in recent years. While it’s open every summer, Tobin said it needs a major resurfacing and new tile in some spots.

But she was eager to open it up to the team.

“My first thought was more kids in the pool and that means more parents at the pool,” Tobin said. “I didn’t see any downside to that. When Erica’s email came across, I had never met her and I didn’t know anything about her. But I said yes right away.”

Not everyone said yes so quickly.

Bylaws for the Gwinnett Swim League dictate that pools used have at least five lanes; the Huntington pool has only four. That is a significant issue because meets take longer to complete with fewer lanes.

Gwinnett Swim League President Brian Beckman said the league had to vote to give Porten’s team a one-year waiver on the lane rule so it can compete this year. Beckman said the waiver was granted largely because there aren’t any summer teams in the Lilburn area and having one there will benefit the community.

He also said it’s tough to build a community swim team from scratch.

“I can’t imagine the level of commitment and passion that the leadership group of a new team must have to build a viable program,” Beckman said. “Growing the number of … wet footprints left behind by our neighborhood swim teams is in the best interest of our county, our high schools and our children.”

And now the pressure is on to find the cash necessary to give the pool a face-lift. In her application to the grant competition, Porten said half the money would be used to upgrade the Huntington pool. The other half would be used to help with registration fees for low-income swimmers and to hire additional coaches, which would make expanding the team possible.

“Neighborhoods with summer swim teams are safer, and have a greater sense of community,” Porten wrote in her grant application. “Over time, we will be able to build a swim program in our area that will raise happy, healthy and well-rounded young people.”

Sophomore Lino Jaramillo said he joined the Berkmar team for the first time this year, for the exercise and because he thought it would help make his breathing stronger. Lino suffers from asthma. He’s looking forward to the summer season.

“It’ll keep me busy; keep me off the streets,” Lino said. “We didn’t do too hot this year, but I feel like by my senior year, we will be much better.”

Porten said she won’t give up if they don’t finish in the money. She’ll shift her focus to fundraising in the community.

“With Erica leading this,” Tobin said, “I have no doubt that it will be a success. Her enthusiasm and conviction are really contagious.”