Carol Wolter admitted her Saturday’s this summer are a “little weird."
She enjoys sleeping in and the extra free time she has now after her youngest of five children graduated from the Columbia Neighborhood Swim League last summer, but it’s not enough to keep her away for good. As a teacher at Guilford Elementary in Columbia, Wolter plans to watch some of her students compete in the league she was involved with for the last 49 years.
“That’s my way of keeping in touch with it, I guess,” she said.
Wolter, like many families living in Howard County, grew up with CNSL, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this summer two years after Columbia turned 50. She and her three siblings swam for Bryant Woods during the inaugural season in 1969, while her five kids — Shane, Preston, Brennan, Drew and Jackson — spent their summers the same way she did: swimming with their friends and spending Saturday mornings competing against the other local teams.
“I wanted my kids to have the same thing I had: a closeness to the community,” Wolter said. “... It’s a way, especially nowadays because people don’t get out much, to play in the backyard. It’s a chance for the kids to get together and hang out with each other.”
CNSL has been one of the longest standing traditions in Columbia and has continued to grow, though different teams have come and gone over the years. This summer, there are 14 teams in Columbia, Ellicott City and Clarksville that compete in five regular season meets across 14 of the area’s 23 pools on Saturday mornings from June 15 to July 20.
The season concludes with the All-City meet July 25-26 at Phelps Luck pool. Children ages 5 to 18 compete in several disciplines and relays.
Countless competitors have gone on to compete in college, but Bob Bellamy, who, as Aquatics Director and eventually Director of Sport and Fitness for Columbia Association from 1978 to 2014 was responsible for the operation, maintenance and personnel for the outdoor pools, said one of the best qualities of CNSL is that there is something for everyone. It’s not just about swimming — team managers hold pep rallies for their squads on Friday nights before meets, and the league is open to swimmers with all ability levels.
“It’s the whole experience. It’s the learning environment — you learn how to swim, you grow up, it’s competitive but it’s not overly competitive,” said Bellamy, who added the neighborhood swim league was one of the most important community events for Columbia Association. “It’s a positive experience for kids as they grow up. I had three kids that ran it and two of my kids swam in college, and they all started at the six and under level at the neighborhood swim league. You see these kids develop and mature and it’s just so heartwarming.”
Like Columbia itself, Bellamy added, CNSL is unique in how it brings communities and families together as well. Wolter’s family is just one of many that have had several generations compete in the league. Susan McDonald, who has been one of several CNSL supervisors since 2013, said it’s common to see parents and grandparents reminiscing at the meets, which have changed very little in 50 years aside from a few technological advances.
“There will be families who their kids are swimming and they’ll talk about how the league was when they swam, what teams were in existence then, what teams they swam on as a kid,” McDonald said. “I even see the grandparents coming in; it’s not just mom and the dad who used to participate. Now they’re watching their kids and grandkids for the second or third time around, which is kind of cool.”
McDonald said CNSL was looking for ways to celebrate the anniversary this season and decided on special swim caps for each team — they feature a team logo on one side and a 50th anniversary logo on the other. She noted that, while the league doesn’t have plans to publicly commemorate the 50th year aside from the swim caps, each team is celebrating in different ways.
“Wilde Lake, they did their charity night (on June 29) and they did a 50th with their theme because their two team managers are turning 50, so they talked a lot about that theme throughout their charity event,” McDonald said. Another team is planning a 50th birthday party at one of their pep rallies.
The league plans to celebrate many more birthdays over the years. Participation has remained consistently strong as families continue to return — or remain — close to their roots.
“It is one of the enduring community features that really helps make Columbia special,” Bellamy said.