Bishop Kelly senior Thomas Roark stepped outside the Boise Aquatics Center last week between races, towel draped around his shoulders, for a moment of peace during a swim meet.
Inside, the races remain the same. The same 25 yards separate one end of the pool from the other. And a couple of hundred parents packed into the stands, same as they always have.
But the sport brings an extra cachet this season. Last December, after nearly 30 years of pushing, Idaho’s high school sports association became the 49th of 51, including the District of Columbia, to recognize swimming as a sanctioned sport.
This fall marks the first official swimming season in Idaho. Roark has competed all over the country, winning a YMCA national title in the 100-yard freestyle in April and committing to a scholarship from Louisiana State University last week.
But he said competing for his school brings an extra thrill and sense of pride.
“I’ve always considered myself an athlete. I do this year-round. This is my life,” he said. “This is what’s going to put me through college.
“When it comes to high school swimming, I love my year-round team. But I love being a part of BK and what that stands for and what that means — spirit, mind, body — and representing my high school and going out there and racing for them.”
CLUB VS. SANCTIONED SPORT
That same recognition resonates for swimmers throughout Idaho. After years of exclusion as a club sport, sanctioning by the Idaho High School Activities Association allows a flood of opportunities.
Schools previously could highlight their swimmers as they saw fit. But programs throughout the Treasure Valley now include swimmers in pep rallies, promote the sport on announcements and weave the team into daily life at the school.
“It makes it a little bit more like it’s a real sport at our school,” Boise senior Sammie Eyolfson said. “Before this year, they would talk about all the other sports on the announcements. They didn’t really talk about swimming a lot. This year, it’s kind of become a bigger deal.”
And it’s opened the door for district and individual school funding, money the sport never received before.
The Boise School District has budgeted $4,500 for coaching salaries and pool rental fees this year, district spokesman Dan Hollar said. The West Ada School District does not pay for pool fees, but it will spend $2,600 to $3,200 for each of its five high school coaches’ salaries, depending on experience, according to West Ada spokesman Eric Exline.
The addition of swimming also helps schools meet their Title IX requirements. Of Idaho’s previously sanctioned co-ed high school sports, only soccer (50.6 percent) and tennis (50.4 percent) have more female athletes than male, according to 2015-16 data from the National Federation of State High School Associations.
That same school year, 54 percent of the state’s swimmers were female, said Julie Prince, the executive director of the Association of Idaho High School Swimming, the governing body that previously ran the club sport.
“It’s traditionally been, throughout all these years, much higher for girls than boys,” Prince said.
STATE WILL HAVE TO WAIT
Sanctioning allows teams to compete for official state titles and hang state championship banners in their schools. But swimming will have to wait another year for the IHSAA to take over the state meet.
This fall remains a learning experience for schools and the state activities association as to what pools are available, which schools should compete in which classifications and how many swimmers make for a competitive meet.
“We’re just kind of learning our way through this right now,” Boise School District activities director Jon Ruzicka said. “We’re trying to get our arms around practice time and meet, how much that’ll be.”
Swimming’s club governing body will run the state meet one last time Nov. 3-4 at the Boise City Aquatics Center, where swimmers reach state via qualifying times. Julie Hammons, the assistant director of the IHSAA, said the organization wants swimmers to follow the example of track, which sends the top competitors from each district to state, with possible wildcard spots available for the next-fastest times.
“A lot of things are on the table,” Hammons said. “Again, we’re looking at growing programs and having more kids being able to participate.”
The kids just want to be recognized for their hard work.
Deb Marria, Bishop Kelly coach
A LONG ROAD
The IHSAA’s 8-6 vote in December capped nearly 30 years of work to get the sport recognized and cross Idaho off the list of states not sanctioning the sport. Only South Dakota and Tennessee still operate swimming as a club sport.
Idaho held its first state meet in the spring of 1989 with three Boise schools and one from Pocatello, and swimmers have pushed multiple times since to get their sport sanctioned.
The IHSAA balked in January 2008 when swimmers approached again due to the funding cutbacks in schools throughout the state during the recession, Hammons said. But it told them that if swimming could align its rulebook with the IHSAA’s and boost the number of swimmers and the number of schools offering swimming, it would reconsider.
Swimming adopted the IHSAA rule book the following year, forcing its clubs to follow the IHSAA’s guidelines. That meant swimmers had to swim for the schools they attended; they had to meet the IHSAA’s academic standards; they had to follow the IHSAA’s rules if they transferred; and a school official is responsible for verifying every swimmer’s eligibility, to name just a few.
“Eligibility of participants is huge, and who has the jurisdiction over that?” Hammons said. “When a kid jumps into the pool with someone else, they want to make sure that they’re being held to the same standards as the person on the starting blocks next to them.”
The sport has also grown since its 2008 rejection. Idaho fielded 750 swimmers from 40 schools in the 2007-08 school year, Prince said. In the 2015-16 school year, that jumped to 1,022 swimmers (a 36 percent increase) from 64 schools.
“Swimming, it’s blowing up in Idaho,” Roark said. “That sounds weird to say because for all my life swimming, it’s been, ‘You swim? When do you swim? Where do you swim?’
“Through these last four, five years, swimming has taken it to, ‘Oh, you swim? That’s cool. I know what that is. I know where you do it and why you do it.’ ”