To hear Tim Ritchie tell it, the All-City Swim Meet hasn’t changed since he first started coaching in 1982.
Granted, the bleachers hauled in on flatbed trucks by helpful parents the night before have been replaced by 20-row grandstands. And the number of competitors has doubled to more than 2,000.
But at its heart, it all remains the same: a three-day swim meet, carnival and costume party all wrapped up in one.
Even the re-location of the meet, back at West Side Swim Club for the first time since 2008, hasn’t changed the look and feel of the annual party.
“The actual swimming of the meet hasn’t changed at all,” Ritchie said. “The tent cities, the camaraderie from the teams, the dress-up days from the coaches, that’s a tradition that has been around for 45 to 50 years in this city.”
The costumed coaches are the first thing you notice on the pool deck. Gussied up as everything from Disney princesses to lumberjacks, they cut an unusual figure among a crowd of swim-suited kids.
It’s easy to miss that, for all the pageantry around the pool deck, the competition itself runs at a controlled, yet breakneck, pace.
Friday’s first preliminary day included 355 individual and relay heats that lasted more than 10 hours, with a break of exactly 66 minutes for lunch. That tight schedule means each heat has to go off no more than 13 seconds after the previous one ends.
Keeping kids age 8 to 19 exactly on a schedule takes what meet director Ben Callan calls his “army” of more than 650 volunteers, who contribute their time to manage logistics for the 10,000 competitiors, parents, coaches and spectators.
“It’s the planning committee and all the volunteers who make things work. It’s not just the people from this pool, it’s all the people from every pool,” Callan said. “It’s not that we expect everything to go smoothly, but there’s nothing we can’t handle.”
The secret to the popularity of the All-City Meet isn’t on the pool deck, it’s in the accompanying “tent city” where swimmers relax and socialize between races. Multiple coaches said that, as competitors, they looked forward to their time in the tents more than any other part of the meet.
“The long times between the races we’re in the tents. That’s where the most fun happens, they get the chance to hang out with their whole team — kids they might not get the chance to hang out with at practice,” Monona coach Nick Nager said.
That doesn’t mean swimmers take it easy once they hit the water. Several elite swimmers have come through the all-city ranks in recent years, including current University of Wisconsin star Beata Nelson. Pool and meet records are also hotly contested, and meet organizers expect most of the 35 pool records set at the meet last time it was hosted at West Side to fall this weekend.
“It’s three incredibly intense days, but I think we’re all built up for it and ready for it,” Ritchie said.
In the pool, 17-year-old Sara Stewart of Ridgewood and 15-year-old Anna teDuits of Nakoma blazed the girls 15-19 100 meter-backstroke prelims, with both besting Stewart’s meet record of 1:04.66 set last year. Stewart took the victory in 1:03.93 to teDuits’ 1:04.65.
Wes Jekel of Seminole beat out Jaden Weiss of Ridgewood in the men’s 100 backstroke prelims, setting up a showdown between the two former Madison West teammates in Sunday’s final.
Also, 14-year old Nicholas Chirafisi of Nakoma broke a meet record in his 13-14 100-meter freestyle prelim, clocking a time of 55.06 seconds that almost would have qualified him for the 15-19 year-old freestyle finals.