Dive in

Meadowbrook's Brooke Ruffin dives in from the starting block for the 100-meter freestyle race. The swim team from Baltimore County, for which Olympian Michael Phelps once competed, was among 48 teams represented in the Straehle Invitational at the Four Seasons Sports Complex in Westminster on July 23. (Photo by Dave Munch\Baltimore Sun Media / July 28, 2014)

Melissa Nordstrom hopped in her van at 6 a.m. armed with movies, sewing kits and electronics.

She and her two children, Elliott, 14, and Sally, 9, were headed to Carroll County so Elliott could compete in the "mecca" of every competitive young Baltimore metro area swimmer – the Straehle Invitational.

On Wednesday, July 23, she traveled only from her home in Gambrills in Anne Arundel County.

But she and her family had arrived in Maryland only days before their Waugh Chapel's swim team began its swim season, coming from St. Petersburg, Russia, where her husband is stationed and where they will travel back to next week after the swim season ends.

"Many of us do this bizarre journey that brought us to Carroll County ... to the Straehle mecca," she said. "You don't get here by accident."

The fields around Four Season Sports Complex in Hampstead, were awash with tents in various colors as the top swimmers from 48 of the 50 teams in the Central Maryland Swim League showcased their talent. More than 1,000 athletes, ages 8 to 18, made the time in their strokes to qualify for the annual Straehle Invitational meet.

"For a number of kids, this makes their summer," said Tom Straehle, whose parents, Betty and Bill, were instrumental in the creation of the league in the 1970s, and for whom the summer event was named.

""The numbers {of swimmers} has really been growing," Straehle said. "We had a big bump in 2012 and I see another bump coming in 2016.

"Having a local hero really helps," he added with a smile.

That local hero, Olympic medal winner and Maryland native Michael Phelps still has his name in the Straehle's archives, as young swimmers have yet to break his record in several events.

"What better role model for the kids?" said Elizabeth Flick, whose daughters, Margaret, 9, and Catherine, 7, swim for Waugh Chapel. "His time is in here. Pretty cool."

Swimmers in bright-colored suits and swim caps warmed up, competed and cooled down throughout the morning and afternoon. In between competitions, the youth mingled with other swimmers, visiting each others' team tents and shopping for deals on swim suits.

"I look forward to it all year long," said Gabriella Eckenrod, 13, who swims for Freedom Swim Club in Sykesville. "I love shopping. I love seeing my friends. I think it is really fun."

Tyrice Rock was there to support the Freedom team and its assistant coach, Emily Nava, his girlfriend. It was Rock's first time at Straehle.

"I didn't know this many people had a love for this sport," Rock admitted. "I think it is pretty nice."

The bustling grounds are even more proof of the pride families have in the event, according to Flick.

"It speaks a lot," Flick said, of the crowd. "It's a weekday and you [families] make it happen."

Straehle agreed.

"It's the parents of the teams who organize this," Straehle said. "We have paid coaches. Parents and volunteers run the whole league. It [the Straehle} is a championship meet. It's a good time."