Waiting for the whistle, swimmers at Wilbur Cross High School crouched on the starting block. Then, at the coach’s signal, they sprang into the water headfirst and splashed across the 25-yard pool.
The intramural competition Wednesday afternoon marked a long-awaited comeback in the high school’s athletic offerings. It had been more than a decade since the Cross boys’ swim team last participated in a meet, and they’re now the only public high school in New Haven with a swim club.
For the past 14 years, Cross students haven’t been allowed to train in their own on-campus pool; the lanes were rented out to private schools for that time, and the money got kicked back to the district. But thanks to a motivated high-school senior, a volunteer coach and dedicated parents, a resurgent swim club got the go-ahead from Cross’s administration to take back the pool this year.
Last year, Gaston Neville brought up the idea for a swim team. He recruited classmates on the track team and lobbied his principal to let them swim. The idea took off when Justo Karell, a bilingual education teacher at Cross and one-time professional water polo player, said he’d coach the club.
Technically, they’re still not a varsity team. The club must prove sustained interest for a year to register as a competitor in the local league, and the club needs to get ahold of funding.
Without regular upkeep, the pool needs some maintenance, too. The circulation system doesn’t work, dampening the air with a stuffy humidity that’s chipped away at the paint. To cool the room, the coach opens up doors to the winter air. Up above the starting blocks, a huge scoreboard is primed to track six lanes, but the club can’t get the times to show up. Nobody at the school knows how to operate a pool cleaner they found in a closet.
“Ten years ago, it went from being used and just stopped,” Neville said. “Even though we’re a school that’s known for sports, the demographics changed, and the administration and city stopped funding it.”
While the heating system looks complicated, Will Clark, the district’s chief operating officer and a former competitive swimmer, said it’s saved the system boatloads of money. “I have been a huge advocate to maintain varsity opportunities where possible and more critically to collaborate with Parks and Physical Education to incorporate swimming into school programming where possible as I believe that learning to swim is a critical life skill and fun,” he wrote in an email. “I have worked to plan and fiscally support keeping the pools open.”
At Wednesday’s meet, the Cross swimmers hung out by the starting blocks, some of then nervous about the crowd of spectators there to root on their wave-making. Parents, several of whom said they didn’t know there was a pool behind the basketball courts until their boys joined the club, screamed and waved signs. The cheerleading team even stopped by, unannounced, to do a chant.
Karell sounded the start of each race with a whistle, while student council members clocked times on stopwatches. The time trial showed the club has a few potential speedsters, like Jacob Martin and Oscar Hernandez who both finished a 50-yard freestyle sprint in 34 seconds, touching the wall within four-tenths of a second of each other.
Several competitors in Wednesday’s time trials barely knew how to swim when they first jumped into the pool a few months ago, one of them in jean shorts. But with nearly two-hour practices every day, in which they swim roughly 2,000 yards, they’re getting better, refining their dives, flip turns and breaths. Bryan Llanos, who was afraid to put his face in the water when he showed up for his first practice on Monday, competed in two events. He notched a 26-second, third-place finish in the 25-yard backstroke, and he tore through his section of a 200-yard freestyle relay, even though he kept his head up, spraying droplets from his thick curls as he breathed from side to side.
“Everyone in that pool is a story, and they’re not even close to meeting their potential,” Karell said.
Neville, the senior who founded the swim club, said he originally came up with the idea last year after an injury kept him off the soccer field. He’d heard that another student, Kevin Rivas, had tried to restart the boys team two years ago without any luck, since the administration was worried about the liability of teenagers in a pool.
Karell got on board because he’d been swimming all his life, ever since he was a 6-year-old, new arrival in Puerto Rico, where his family arrived after fleeing Cuba. He competed internationally, swimming the 200-meter butterfly in the Pan-American Games. Karell said swimming helped him focus in school, train for other sports and travel the world.
As coach who’s founded private club teams in Greenwich and Stamford, Karell said he wants the same opportunities to be open to Cross students. That’s particularly important when the school’s pool can offset the membership price at other swim clubs, which can sometimes cost thousands of dollars, he said.
Though Rivas had been turned down, Neville and Karell’s pitch worked. “They came to me with a plan. I punched a few holes in it and they patched them up. I said, Why not? Let’s use this facility in a meaningful way,” said Edith Johnson, Cross’s principal. “We’re starting small with the hope — no, the intent and the will — that this team will have a second season.”
Neville said the focus now is on recruiting more classmates and improving technique. For instance, he used to struggle with butterfly, a challenging stroke that requires a swimmer to swing both arms out of the water then pull straight down, all while pounding their legs in a dolphin-kick. Now, with some pointers from Karell, he said it’s his favorite stroke. “I really enjoy it now, once I’ve practiced it,” he said.
The club plans on entering a few meets against junior-varsity teams in the spring. (Girls from Cross currently swim on a co-op team with East Haven; Laura Rosado, an all-conference backstroke and butterfly swimmer who joined last year, just got an early acceptance to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.) Next school year, Karell and Neville said, they’ll have a full season of varsity meets, challenging schools like West Haven, East Haven, North Haven and Notre Dame, who used to rent their pool for so many years. Eventually, Neville added, he hopes the younger boys might qualify for state championships.
But the swimmers still need funding. They received donated googles and jammers from Yale (that parent Rebecca Martin helped secure) and are fundraising with bake sales, but they have to buy caps for their hair and hire buses for meets. Kick-boards and buoys would help them train, and their coach eventually needs a stipend for his 10-hour weeks at practice.
Eventually, Karell said he hopes that a strong swim team at Cross changes the whole culture of New Haven. In a coastal city, he argued, more kids should know how to swim, allowing them to take advantage of wading at Lighthouse Point, kayaking in Mill River and boating in Long Wharf. He envisions swim lessons for elementary-school students and a high-school water polo team, too.
For now, with limited experience in the pool, Karell said that his swimmers can keep everyone else safe. With a safety certification class he plans to add this spring, some students could also get lifeguarding jobs at country clubs, he added.