The 1,334 swimmers at the Smoky Mountain Invitational can find pleasure and relief from the summer heat with a quick dip into the warm-up area of Springbrook Pool.
For the volunteers working to run the massive two-day meet hosted by the Maryville-Alcoa Flying Dolphins, the satisfaction is less tangible but no less rewarding.
“It’s all about the kids,” timing judges Rebecca Preston and Sherren Chadwell chimed together quickly, when asked why they and more than 600 other volunteers spent their weekend herding, timing and rewarding swimmers entered in the 86 events.
Preston and her husband Joe Preston, meet director, worked at the SMI for 15 years until 2008 as their own children went through the summer program. The two returned to the labor of love in 2017.
“The prior meet director’s kids were aging out, and (MAFD) needed help to keep things going,” Preston said. “Joe and I were like, ‘we can’t let Smoky Mountain die, it’s too important to the children.’”
This year’s meet, which concludes with younger age groups racing today, is the 46th annual invitational. Village Green of west Knoxville is the largest of 29 teams, with over 120 swimmers registered. The Flying Dolphins have about 120 swimmers on the team this summer, with roughly half of them competing this weekend.
The summer swim season features dual meets in June, with each of 34 teams in the Greater Knoxville Area Interclub Swimming Association competing in one of six leagues that are based largely on team size.
The Flying Dolphins, sponsored by Maryville-Alcoa-Blount County Parks & Recreation, compete in League 4 for mid-size programs. Green Meadow Swim Team, with about 260 swimmers, compete with the largest programs in League 1.
The Smoky Mountain Invitational, held after the dual meets are concluded, is special in that entrants are limited to those swimmers who do not compete year-round.
The grand size of the meet helps prepare newer and younger swimmers for the large-meet format of the summer’s final event — the city meet on July 25-27 at the Tennessee’s Jones Aquatic Center.
“I think for our team and a lot of the other teams as well, this is a great meet for ramping up for the city meet,” MAFD head coach J.T. Hinsley said. “This meet gets us ready, gets us hyped and gets us in the mood for the bigger meets coming up.”
Hinsley, who coaches at Berean Christian School during the academic year, said that the coaches highly value the volunteers.
“It’s honestly like a full week of prep work before what you see here,” Hinsley said. “It’s not just planning but putting up tents and scaffolding and more. It’s a big process, and the meet just wouldn’t happen without (volunteers).”
Preston said that the biggest change from her earlier stints and the 2019 version of the SMI is the technology and specifically software designed to facilitate entries and register times.
“When I first started, each team would bring a 3.5-inch floppy disk to a meeting and we’d take the disk, import their entries and make a printout right there,” Preston said. “Now it’s all done by email and just with files we can send electronically.”
Each team provides volunteers with assignments based on the number of entrants. The Flying Dolphins are providing over 100 workers each of the two long days.
“And we just don’t have that many parents on the team, so a lot of us do double shifts,” Preston added.
In order to add more fun events to the two days of swimming, there are prizes for the best-decorated team tent, a coach’s costume contest for Sunday and coach relay races.
Even the nine MAFD swimmers who “age out” after this month’s final meets join in the volunteering. Those nine seniors set up the rubrics and will judge the tent decorations and coach costumes, with pizza awarded to the winning teams.