The hair on the heads of the 29 members of the Union City High School (UCHS) boys’ swim team was growing back to the length it was before November 5 as they – a little less serious, but none less close as comrades – goofed around beside the pool at the Bruce Walters Recreation Hall.
They had shaved their heads to lessen drag that would potentially hamper their lap times.
As the season officially ended in late February, it was no longer the “pool of pain” as some team members dubbed it. However, a few still gave it a few wary sideways glances, and only a handful were willing to jump in off-season to demonstrate the well-honed, hard-earned skills that won them four tournaments and fifth place in the state this year.
Seems strange that champion swimmers would hesitate to dive in at 6 p.m. on a comparatively balmy 55 degree day, since during the sport’s season the boys would awake at 6 a.m. in near-freezing temperatures and plunge into the pool with a vengeance.
Seventeen-year-old Juan Luzuriaga has been swimming all his life. He jumped at the chance to join the UCHS swim team when he came to the school two years ago.
But, he says, he doesn’t actually like swimming; a sentiment oddly echoed by most of his teammates.
“I know it seems strange, but it really is a love-hate relationship,” Head Coach Anthony ‘Abuelo’ Snarski said. “You have to understand that the endurance factor with swim team doesn’t compare [to other sports]. These kids have to get up in the freezing dark for morning practice, and go home in the same freezing dark after evening practice. Then they do five hours of homework.”
“You’re in pain, you’re tired,” Luzuriaga said. “You don’t want to go to practice, but you do, and when you’re done and you’ve won, it makes it all worth it.”
“It hurts, but after practice I feel good that I made it.”—David Villacis
UCHS’s swim team began in 2000 when the school was divided into Union Hill and Emerson. Snarski was Emerson’s head coach. His assistant coach Peter Sinagra ran the Union Hill team. They joined forces when the schools united.
The teams had around 10 kids then, and like their performance, the team’s membership has improved by more than double.
The current UCHS boys swim team is all-varsity. While it’s open to freshman through sophomores, they currently have 11 seniors on the team.
“I think that played a role in our success this season, because they’re bigger, faster, and stronger,” Snarski said. “But it took a collaborative effort on all of their parts.”
UCHS placed first out of six schools in November at the Urban Relay Carnival held in Plainfield. They then competed in the Christmas classic tournament in Bayonne at the Lincoln Swim Center where they also placed first after years of placing second.
They then hosted the Public Schools of Hudson County competition in January and, once more, placed first for the first time. Their season culminated when they took first for the first time at the Hudson County Interschool Athletic League tournaments in February, which Union City also hosted.
“The dedication of these kids was impressive,” Sinagra said. “They worked real hard and they deserved every win they had.”
For the boys, working hard applies to more than the already grueling practices. They must pass all classes, Snarski said, in order to stay on the team.
“I think it’s definitely a motivator to do well,” he added. “Kids do well just to be on the team. We thrive on student-athletes, not athlete-students like other sports may prefer.”
Senior Anthony Flores is the team’s captain. He has swum competitively for four years and competed in each winning tournament this past season.
How does one become captain of a group of high-energy, occasionally “immature” teens?
“To lead a team of teen boys is not easy,” Flores said. “Above all, you have to show maturity, find a mutual understanding, and get them to focus.”
His efforts have paid off.
“It is very difficult to get 28 boys on the same page,” Snarski said. “To get them to practice, show leadership skills, and be the person the boys go to when there’s a problem takes strength.”
Freshman David Villacis’s parents made him try all sports, but he ended up choosing the swim team; although, he said, like the others, “Most of the time I hate it.”
The consensus with the team seems to be that it’s not about the swimming itself, but about the motivation to set – and beat – their own personal best, and the rewards that come from such a journey.
“It hurts,” Villacis said, “but after practice I feel good that I made it.” He plans to stay on the team for his remaining three years.
“Everyone really came together,” Flores stated. Though his swim team career will end when he graduates this year, he regrets no part of it.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better ending,” he said.
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.