While a typical day in the life of pre-teens and teens may revolve around school, mobile devices, Facebook, and music, youths who have chosen to engage in a sport like swimming have a slightly different take on life - as a whole. Oh sure, they are still teens - highly impressionable, image-conscious, rebellious, fun, and sensitive at the same time, yet they all possess a distinct quality that will benefit them for life - perseverance.
Like a deep keel of a boat, team swimming has proved to provide stability to the everyday life of teen swimmers. Cultivating life skills and developing respect for themselves and for others, they are immersed in a sport that requires fierce commitment, making them remarkably unique.
Las Vegas is home to one of the oldest and hugely successful swim clubs around. Sandpipers of Nevada, established in 1968, is one of the top club swim teams in the United States and is currently the 2011 Nevada State Championship title holder. It is from here where some of the state's, and nation's, top swimmers, not to mention exceptional teen role models, come from.
Swim practice occurs daily for Las Vegas teens who belong to Sandpipers of Nevada. While they all manage full loads at school comprised of accelerated classes, student council and extracurricular activities, it's clear that swimming has made a firm impact on their lives. Furthermore, most of them have realized at a tender age that this is their way of life.
Take for example David Miller who says, "I love swimming because I get to be with my friends." For most of these youths, their closest friends are at the pool. "We've been with each other for a long time. We travel together to compete and it's more social."
The social dynamic of swimming is enormous, as they retreat back to the pool each day to meet up with their friends.
"The other swimmers bring excitement, competition and someone to commiserate with when practice is hard," says Coach Chris Barber, Head Age Group Coach for the Sandpipers. "The kids in a group can demand effort and detail in a way that the coach alone cannot."
Contrary to other sports, swimming also allows teens to be in a co-ed environment. This offers a unique platform for developing social and interpersonal skills. Exchanging stories, challenging each other, and sharing the hard work all amount to relationship-building skills.
David and his team-mates swim six days per week during the school year and up to nine times a week in the summer. Practice is two hours long, and they swim roughly 6,000 - 6,500 yards per night during the school week and two hours on Saturday mornings. That equates to roughly four miles, or swimming from the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino to Stratosphere each day.
The commitment put forth by each swimmer, coupled with dedicated support from the family and coach, is unrivaled. 13-year-old Mike Fisk started swimming when he was 6. He joined Sandpipers because a neighbor friend was on the team.
"This is something I feel I do well. My goal is to get stronger at the sport, " says Mike. While swimming is an activity that anyone can learn to do, Mike emphasizes the expectations one may have in relation to being successful at it. "You can't come into a sport thinking you'll do good [at first]. It's challenging - physically and mentally."
The payoff however, is immeasurable.
"The biggest advantages for young people who are swimmers revolve around life lessons," says Coach Chris Barber. "Some swimmers deal with success, while others deal with lack of success." Emotional and physical challenges fuel their inner strength and teach them to overcome life's many challenges.
Jackie Parrish, 12, added that receiving constant guidance and performance analysis under a coach has taught her about who she is. "I don't take constructive criticism very well, but I'm better at it now, and I know it will make be better in life."
Team swimmers learn time management skills, the ability to set goals, self-discipline, sportsmanship and emerge with a feeling of self-worth. Furthermore, unlike some sports, competitive swimming occurs year-round. So, while the commitment is deep and the training is also hard, the option to stay in is choice made by each swimmer.
"It's about coming to the pool whether you want to, or not," says Alec Clinton, 13. He and his swim friend, Jackie, admitted that they are often challenged by the rigorous schedule. "It's about believing in yourself and having self confidence," says Jackie.
While the very nature of the sport facilitates the development for a strong self-esteem, for Mike Fisk, swimming also provides the ultimate mental release.
"It's an avenue of relief," says Mike. For every swimmer, the expectation of balancing school, family, friends and often other commitments, is high. For Mike, being able to focus on making progress and getting stronger in a sport that he loves, provides the release that he needs.
The psychological benefits to swimming are crystal clear. Immersion in the water, the rhythm of the stroke, and concentration on technique add to the meditative process and provide an excellent respite from school life.
"In the end there is a ton of time where a swimmer is alone with their thoughts, staring at the black line on the bottom of the pool," says Coach Chris Barber. "In a sense, each practice is up to them to determine if they are going to put the effort and focus needed to get better."
Better, faster, and stronger leads to healthy, lean, fully-toned bodies. Swimming works the entire body, improving cardiovascular conditioning, muscle strength, endurance, posture and flexibility. And for teens, looking good and feeling good boost self esteem and fuels the confidence that they need to develop the whole person - body, mind and soul.
Yet, team swimming is very much a family commitment - a commitment of time and patience.
"Parents work swim meets, drive kids to and from practice, raise money and promote the team and the sport," says Coach Chris Barber. "Most importantly, parents support their kids, win or lose, and encourage them to get back to practice and persevere."
With that kind of back-up, would these swimmers ever leave the pool and opt for a more terrestrial sport? When asked where they see themselves in five years, they all replied, without hesitation, that they'd still be making natatorial plunges and traversing water competitively.
"Just thinking about all the time, effort and money put into swimming by us and our families," says Jackie. "There really is no reason to quit."