"Swimmers: Take your mark."
That's the sound of summer at swim clubs all over Pleasanton as kids ages 4 to 18 grip their toes on the edges of pools and starting blocks, preparing mentally and physically to dive right in and give it their all.
Each lane has two timers, one from each team, who click their stopwatches as the swimmer touches the edge. Some emerge from the water anxious to learn their time. Beginners are pleased just to have made it all the way.
Joan Strom, coordinator for the Del Prado Stingrays for 10 years, said it's rewarding to see the children advance in their swimming skills.
"We do the time trails at the beginning and we get these little ones that have been practicing for two weeks," she said; they often have to stop mid-swim, hang on to the lane line and catch their breath.
But soon they learn correct strokes and develop stamina.
"That's very rewarding to see," Strom said.
Swim meets in the Tri-Valley Swim League are a very big deal. Eight teams compete against each other, with volunteer parents staffing the meets. Officials line one side of the pool, tracking times. Swimmers begin to gather as their swim times approach, with the younger ones shepherded by parents.
The Strom family has been involved with the Stingrays since they joined in 1995.
"My daughter, Julianne, was 7," recalled Strom. "We were new in the neighborhood and to the community, and I talked her into joining."
In a couple of years, Julianne was joined by her younger siblings, John and Jaclyn. Dad Jay became the meet announcer. As swimmers stand poised to begin, he calls off their first names.
The season runs from mid May until the end of July, with meets Saturday mornings and Wednesday evenings, and practice every weekday.
"It makes me feel good," Joan Strom said. "We spend the summer as a big unit. We camp for half a day every Saturday."
"There's a very strong family tradition at Del Prado," she added. "So many stick with it all the way through high school."
This summer, the team has 10 graduated seniors, and most of them joined when they were little.
"It's very neat, very special to me. That's our hope, that they'll stick with you," commented Strom. "It's hard when they get to be 12, 13. If you're not a strong swimmer it gets hard. But we hope that we recognize everyone, and that there's something special there that they keep coming back."
Some swimmers choose to join Seahawks, a USS year-round competitive swim team, which makes them ineligible for recreational swimming. Many of the Stingrays swim for their high school teams, which is allowed.
"My oldest daughter didn't want to swim when she got to Foothill, but she tried it and loved it," said Strom. "She became so much stronger. That's my hope, that most of them have at least done it a year."
Strom remembers when the only activities competing with the swim season were girls soccer and baseball all-stars.
"Now there is that along with water polo, lacrosse, cheerleading, which is now like a sport," she said. "Some go away to camp, and kids are very involved in community service and foreign languages. Some people are really squeezing a lot in."
Last Wednesday evening, the Stingrays hosted FAST, the Foothill Area Swim Team, at the Del Prado Cabana Club on Paseo Santa Cruz. Youngsters played on the grass, enjoying the warm temperatures, while older swimmers lounged around snacking and visiting while waiting for their events.
Lizzy Gates and Lani Cohen, both recent Amador Valley High grads, started with Del Prado at an early age. They said they stay on the team for the social aspect.
"I quit for a few years. I was teaching swimming and didn't want to be in the water 24 hours a day," said Gates, who is going to Chico State in the fall.
She still came to watch her younger sister swim so decided this year she might as well join up again.
"I like how much of a community our team is," said Cohen, who is heading off to University of Hawaii. "I see families from Del Prado around town and they say hi."
"It's a really great way to spend your summer," she added.
They said most of the seniors also have jobs but with a recreational swim team it's OK to miss practice once a week to accommodate their schedules.
The snack bar was doing a brisk business on this warm evening. It raises funds for the team, along with apparel sales and the dues, which are $120 for members of the Cabana Club and $130 for non-members. Del Prado has 148 swimmers this season, who are spread throughout the age groups, and it practices Monday, Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Wednesday and Friday mornings.
"Practices are sometimes really hard but they're really fun," Strom said.
They can include a donut relay -- swim a lap, eat half a donut, make sure your mouth is clear, then dive back in -- or a piggyback race with big kids carrying the little ones on their backs.
"That way the big ones know the little ones and the little ones know the big ones," Strom explained.
Del Prado has a history as a club of families who support the kids, she noted.
"When they're swimming, everyone is watching and cheering. Lots of parents are there -- they don't just drop them off," Strom said. "I think the kids love to compete. We have fantastic coaches that the kids really like."
The League season ends with a championship meet the last weekend in July held at the Dolores Bengtson Aquatic Center.
"We can take 130 swimmers," Strom said. "We used to have to beg people, now we want people to volunteer to not do it. If you're a diehard swim team member, you don't go on vacation until August."
Whichever team scores the most points is crowned the champions, and Del Prado earned the honor in 2009. Last year it was ClubSport Pleasanton.
The night before the championship meet, the Del Prado "chalk fairies" hit up the homes of the swimmers 10 and younger and write encouraging messages in their driveways.
"The ones that have been on the team will be waiting and expecting it," said Strom with a laugh. "I liked it as a parent when that was done for my kids."
After the championships, Del Prado has its awards banquet.
"We thank everybody for the season, with a potluck dinner, and the swim team provides hamburgers, hotdogs and drinks," Strom said. "We recognize outstanding swimmers, athletically, and the ones that had great character, cheered on teammates, who had the 'Del Prado Spirit.'"
They end the evening with a slide show that starts with the first meet and follows the team through the season.
Former swim coach Mark Hudson (2000-01) was at the Wednesday meet, saying he enjoys a dose of the family atmosphere once a week. He swam USS in college.
Gina Juarez and her husband Tom met when they were both coaches for the Stingrays in 1992. They married in 1997. Now although they live in San Ramon they have their children Tommy, 11, and Reagan, 10, swimming for Del Prado.
"The families are so welcoming," Juarez said.
"This year we have all coaches that swam for us," Strom said. "They know the history of what we stand for."
Jaclyn Strom is heading off to college in the fall so is completing her last summer as a Del Prado Stingray, ending her parents' involvement in the team after 17 years.
"I'm a little concerned about it," admitted Joan. "We've never missed a home meet."
But they know that they'll still be welcomed back at the meets -- it's the Del Prado way.
Tri-Valley Swim League
* Briarhill Barracudas Dublin
* ClubSport TidalWaves
* DBAC (Dolores Bengtson Aquatics Center) Piranha Swim Team
* Del Prado Stingrays
* Dublin Green Gators
* FAST (Foothill Area Swim Team) Dolphins
* PMST (Pleasanton Meadows Swim Team)
* Ruby Hill Killer Whales