In early June of the summer my older son, Dixon, was between kindergarten and first grade, a friend called and asked me if he could join the Tadpoles for two weeks every morning for about an hour at the Memorial Park Pool. She explained that the Tadpoles were usually 5-year-olds who could already swim. Over the course of the two weeks they would work on their swimming skills and then have races and get ribbons on the last day. This sounded perfect to us, two weeks of lessons ending in fun, so we signed him up. Failing to catch on that the Tadpoles were actually the pre-step to the Jasper Swim Team, the rest of our immediate family and several friends enthusiastically joined him at the pool for the last day’s races, video cameras in hand.
The next call came from a swim team parent and I was asked if Dixon would like to swim in an exhibition race at the next Jasper Swim Team home meet along with several other Tadpole graduates. Exhibition swimmers gained experience and confidence swimming in meets, but their times were not considered in the meet results. Seeing this invitation as an honor which could not be refused, our family’s wonderful, 11-year history with the Jasper Swim Team began without our actually realizing what had happened.
During swim team summers both my boys spent two months practicing at Memorial Park, swimming in home meets, and traveling to Cullman, Decatur, Athens, Oneonta, Sheffield, Florence and two locations in Tennessee-Fayetteville and Tullahoma. Sometimes we transported our own kids on the away trips and on other occasions we took a carload, often turning the longer trips into “field trips” and opportunities to discover new places to eat. During those journeys we discovered, among other things, the covered bridges of Blount County, the exceptionally beautiful rolling hills and valleys of Middle Tennessee, and soul-satisfying food in Mom and Pop restaurants hidden away in small towns.
At one of the first meets when Dixon was still swimming exhibition, the head coach, Ann Trotter, gave him his swimming card for the race and told him to go line up. He took a look at the card, figured out he was swimming backstroke, and with a heavy, forlorn expression, signaled to me from across the pool to come over to talk with him.
Convinced he would drown if he had to swim backstroke for 25 yards, Dixon begged me to ask Coach Trotter if he could swim a different stroke or just not swim at all. Even at that early point in our swim team experience, his daddy and I knew she watched her swimmers, even the very youngest, with an exceptionally knowledgeable eye, knew what they could do, and expected them to do it with no questions. So I told him he had to swim whatever stroke his coach told him to swim and I went back across the pool deck with some over-worrying mother doubt in my heart.
About half way through his race, Dixon stopped swimming and looked like he might actually sink. In spite of my dress, I slipped off my flip-flops and was ready to go in after him. But thankfully, before I jumped in, I looked over at Coach Trotter. She gave me a reassuring nod and then voiced her signature encouragement in his direction, “Hurry, hurry, hurry!” Amazingly, Dixon started swimming again and ultimately made it all the way across the pool to finish his race, sharing his snaggle-toothed grin as soon as his hand touched the wall.
Age 9: Swim
When our family came on board with the swim team, Ann Trotter had been the sole head coach for several years. But her history with the team went back to her own childhood when at age 9, she and her 7-year-old sister were at the Memorial Park Pool taking Red Cross swimming lessons. A neighbor who was a lifeguard “volunteered” the girls to try out for the team. They made the cut by swimming across the pool. Once Ann had the chance to swim in one meet that summer and then work at the state AAU swim meet as a runner, swimming hooked her for life.
The Jasper Swim Team became a summer way of life for Ann and her family as she and her two siblings swam, her father took on the position as head timer, and her mother sold T-shirts and patches to raise money for the team. Ann swam for nine seasons and was part of a free style and medley relay team that was undefeated for four years.
During Ann’s swim team years, school sports for girls were essentially non-existent, so summer swimming provided an important opportunity for girls to compete. She recalled the “serious fun” of that competition as she described the three siblings’ preparation for the Tennessee Valley Conference Swimming Championship and the state swim meet. After swim practice, in order to improve their swimming times, they would swim sprints across the slough out at the lake as their mother timed their efforts.
Ann commented about those years, “I had some good coaches coming up along the way who made swimming fun and made me want to be there every day and compete and work out.” One of these coaches swam for the University of Alabama and as part of his rigorous swim team training, insisted his swimmers work out with weights he made from broomsticks and cement-filled coffee cans. If a swimmer was late for practice, this coach made him or her do push-ups and Ann remembered the team taking great delight as he did push-ups when he was late for practice on one occasion.
In those years about 60-70 kids swam in the summer but only those with the top three best times for each event went to the meets as there was no exhibition swimming. The team traveled to meets on the “Old Gray Goose,” a re-purposed Army bus and playing card games kept the swimmers occupied during traveling time.
The summer Ann was 17, the team traveled to Auburn for a meet. Recalling embarrassment at the moment but affection for her father while looking back, she explained how in spite of all the tremendous noise of the spectators and other swimmers in an indoor facility, a swimmer can tune in to a familiar voice. “From out of the blue, I heard this ‘Roll Tide’ and it was my daddy, yelling at me as I was getting ready to start.”
Age 19: Swim
In 1975 when Ann’s Jasper Swim Team eligibility ended, her thirty-five year swim coaching career began. That summer the swim team initiated age group coaching in which the team was divided into age groups and each group had its own coach. At 19, Ann was one of those coaches.
After graduating from the University of Alabama as a physical education major with an aquatics emphasis and a history minor, Ann began her now 32 year old career as a physical education teacher at T.R. Simmons Elementary School. Her teaching career began and her summer swim team coaching continued. Ann shared head coaching responsibilities with another coach for about 10 years and then served as sole head coach from the early ‘90s until she retired this spring.
As Ann shares her thoughts on three and a half decades of coaching, her focus frequently falls on the family atmosphere created and promoted by the swim team. Both of her sons, Will and Jim, were extremely successful team members. Her spouse Alan, with a lifeguarding background, ran the park pool for many years and did whatever jobs needed to be done during the swim team season. So for this swim team family, the park pool was essentially home for the summer.
Other swimmers’ parents and family volunteers organize and run the home swim meets where they serve as timers, scorers, judges, ribbon makers, runners, and computer operators and assume similar responsibilities at away meets. Often entire families are working at the meets or preparing for them allowing for built-in family time which is fun as well as rewarding. During this process, everyone involved has multiple opportunities to make new friends with local families or swim team families from other towns.
While many of Ann’s summer teams won the Tennessee Valley Conference Swimming Championship and many of her individual swimmers won medals at the state swim meets, she proudly reflects on the fact that most of these swimmers ultimately became “outstanding citizens.” She notes that in their competitive swimming and training, they learn an important skill while developing self-discipline and determination, invaluable, lifelong assets which help them find success and happiness as adults.
With the opening of the Memorial Park Natatorium indoor pool, Ann has been able to include swimming lessons in her physical education curriculum at T.R. Simmons. In the spring, her third, fourth, and fifth graders take swimming lessons from the Natatorium staff. With so much water access in our area — lakes, rivers and home pools — learning to swim has essentially become a life-saving necessity. Ann expresses an important aspect of the heart of her coaching as she explains, “Seeing a child succeed in swimming competitively or just learning to swim is a reward to me.”
Along with school years packed with energetic elementary school children and summers absorbed by the busy swim team schedule, Ann has been able to continue to enjoy her family’s music tradition as she sings in her church choir and Ladies’ Ensemble and assists with the children’s choirs. She and Alan are devoted Alabama football fans and they enjoy the traveling that goes hand in hand with this loyalty. Walker High School football remains a magnet for them as well.
Coach Ann Trotter grew up on the Jasper Swim Team and has spent her adult life to this point as its coach. Her extensive knowledge and experience in this sport, the unselfish leadership she provided for all the other committed coaches, involved families, and fortunate swimmers, and the positive recognition her long-termed dedication brought to our community, will likely remain unsurpassed in the history of Jasper swimming.
Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 387-2890.