Wiedmer: CASL city meet about more than winning (with slideshow)

Wiedmer: CASL city meet about more than winning (with slideshow)

July 13th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

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Fifteen teams; 982 swimmers. Eighty events spanning 10 age groups, boys and girls. Two states.

Those are the cold, hard facts regarding the Chattanooga Area Swim League's Bill Caulkins City Meet that ended Saturday evening at Warner Park.

But ask Caulkins, the CASL's 83-year-old patriarch, what matters most about the 55-year-old organization and he'll opt for a warm, fuzzy response that needs but a single word: "Family."

They come from as far away as Calhoun and Dalton, Ga., and Cleveland, Tenn., families of various economic means and swimming genes. They set up tents and lawn chairs and load their coolers with water and sports drinks and lots of bananas to will their little fishies through both multiple heats and the 92-degree heat that smothered Warner on Friday and Saturday.

"I've been involved with this meet as a swimmer or coach for 34 years," said Dalton coach Charles Todd, who swam for Fort Oglethorpe growing up and has been the Dolphins' head coach for the past 17 years. "First of all, it's a fun league, lots of good people. Second, for a summer rec league, it's highly competitive."

Todd's team was the most competitive, finishing first with the Signal Mountain Green Giants second, both teams helped by sheer numbers.

"I've got 97 swimmers this year; [Signal's] got 70-something," said Todd, who's leaving the Dolphins after this summer to take a job in Atlanta. "That can make a difference."

No one's made more of a difference long-term than Caulkins, whose service in one form or another spans nearly 50 years. And two of his three children -- daughters Caroline Bentley and Betsy Bookout -- still coach the sport, working with the Fairyland Flash in the summer and the GPS/McCallie club team in the winter.

When he told the CASL board that he was retiring last year, it took them about as much time as it takes to blow a starter's whistle to name the city meet in his honor.

"Bill Caulkins has almost single-handedly made this organization," said Robby Taliaferro, whose 10-year-old daughter Ellie has legitimate Olympic dreams. "He's meant so much to swimming in this area. When I was a kid, if I was swimming he was judging, and he disqualified me more times than I can count. I can promise you that Ellie's butterfly genes don't come from me."

Said Caulkins' daughter Betsy: "It's just so special to see how many lives he's touched."

Funny thing is, Caulkins himself was never that into swimming. He pushed his children toward it not so much to win ribbons, but for far broader reasons.

"First, it's a family sport," he said. "Second, it's a life-saving sport. If you fall out of a boat on a lake and you can't swim, you'll drown. Third, it's a coeducational sport. Finally, it's a worldwide sport. Just look at the Olympics. Gold-medal swimmers can come from anywhere."

But when he was growing up in Chattanooga, swimming was far different than now, a single word capable of closing pools for long periods of time.

"Polio," Caulkins said of the crippling disease. "All it took was one case of it to close the swimming pools and movie theaters. So I didn't swim a lot as a child."

But when he became a student at McCallie he learned that he couldn't receive a diploma until he proved he could swim 50 yards. Then he went to the University of North Carolina and faced an additional swimming requirement.

So when the family returned to the Scenic City from California nearly 50 years ago, Caulkins became heavily involved with CASL and the real fun began for everyone else.

Not that it's only fun and racing. When Caulkins talks of family, he can point to the two $1,000 Jennifer Fugate scholarships that CASL awards to longtime competitors each year. Named for the Ringgold TigerSharks swimmer who died in 1986 at the age of 14 with no warning a couple of weeks before that year's city meet, the scholarships went to Janelle Wigal and Conagher Smith this year. The other finalists were Sam McHugh (who'll swim for Tennessee this coming school year), Quinn Nash, Nelson Chung, Will Gurley, McCay Mathias, Simon Parker, Stephanie Saad-Naguib, Kristen Boyd and Kent Scruggs.

In one of the more touching moments you'll ever see, Warner's lane 4 was left open for Fugate as the other nominees stepped atop starting blocks on both ends of the 25-yard pool.

But then it was time to swim, and as an added touch Saturday, the No. 1 qualifier in each final got to pick his or her favorite song to hear as they approached the starting block.

For 8-year-old Ben Bevill of Fairyland -- who qualified first in three events -- that meant selecting "Happy" by Pharrell Williams, "Fancy" by Iggy Azalea and "Roar" by Katy Perry.

For Ben's mom and dad, James and Susan Bevill, it's been nothing but a happy experience watching their three children -- Ethan (14), Meredith (11) and Ben -- all choose swimming for their No. 1 sport.

"Just the friendships they make," Susan said. "You meet some awesome families in this sport. And the discipline they learn. If you do this year-round, like ours do, it's a tremendous amount of work."

Families. Such as the Blazeks. Paul sang the national anthem Saturday and handled the public-address duties. Lindy has made chili for more than 30 years at Red Bank meets while their daughters swam, then turned to coaching.

Or coaches such as Cumberland's Julie Thornburg, who swam for and then coached the Currents for decades.

As young Bevill prepared to rest for Saturday night's final, he was asked what he enjoyed most about the city meet.

"I got to make a lot of new friends," he said.

Friends who'll eventually feel like family. Or at least a really large school of fish.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.