Pool of volunteers keeps league afloat

"Give me a microphone and a spotlight, and I'm in my glory," laughs Bob Russell, who has spent the last 23 summers as the starter/ announcer for the Harper's Choice Challenge, one of the 14 teams that make up the Columbia Neighborhood Swim League.

For a self-acknowledged ham who "likes being in the limelight," announcing the team's results is right up Russell's alley. But it's not the only reason he and his wife, Barbara, have returned to the pool summer after summer.


"Supporting the team is the main thing," says Russell, whose three sons are or have been Challengers. Bob Jr., now 30, and Matthew, now 20, are no longer eligible, but Danny, 15, is on the team, with another two years to go before he reaches "mandatory retirement."

Because most volunteers are parents of swimmers, says Russell, when Danny leaves "that may be it for me, too."


Also perhaps coming to the end of his swim-team tenure is Hal Neat, another 23-year veteran. He started with the Phelps Luck Snappers in 1977, when his two older children, Marie Dolores and Hal Jr., were on the team.

"Then there was a two-year break, and now I've been back for the last 10 years with our youngest, Cynthia Marie," says Neat.

Because Cynthia just graduated from Howard High School, this will be her last summer as a Snapper before heading to Towson University in a few weeks.

Neat started years ago as a timer, and his wife, Anna Marie, helped with the concession stand, as she still does. These days, Neat, like Bob Russell, is most often the starter/announcer - although you might find him anywhere around the pool.

"I help out where I'm needed," he says.

He's kept coming back, Neat says, because "it's so much fun to watch the kids get older and see how they progress, to see their eyes light up when they get a ribbon.

"But it's not all win-win-win," Neat adds. "The parents cheer on all the kids. It's really a good, clean sport, and good, friendly competition. In today's athletic environment, that's rare to see."

With 16 years as a swim-team volunteer, Joan Lancos doesn't have quite as many meets to her credit as do Russell and Neat, but, in her eyes, "I've been there forever. I'm a fixture.


"As long as I've had a kid on the team," says Lancos, "I've been there with them."

Lancos' three children - Carrie, Courtney and Andy - have been part of the Clemens Crossing Cyclones, and during their swimming tenure, Lancos has served as "deck person" (lining up the youngest swimmers for their events) and swimsuit coordinator, and she also has put in her time in concessions, selling sweatshirts, T-shirts, swim caps and "about 14 dozen swim goggles every summer."

As if that's not enough, Lancos is also the team parents' all-important "advance man," showing up at away meets early so that she can make sure chairs are available for Cyclone parents. It's an important job: Host teams sometimes forget to set up chairs for visitors, and meets can begin at 8 a.m. and last four or more hours.

Russell, Neat, and Lancos are just three of the volunteers who keep the Columbia Neighborhood Swim League going, says supervisor Eddie Cosentino, a former Cyclone.

"We need more than 60 volunteers for each swim meet," Cosentino says. "Without our volunteers, we couldn't run."

With 14 swim teams, and 2,096 participants ranging from the 6-and-unders to the 18-year-olds, many volunteers are needed to keep track of the youngsters during each team's five dual meets, a mini-meet for the 7-and-under kids, and the All-City Championship (this year's will be held July 30 ).


When their kids are too old to compete, Russell, Neat and Lancos might no longer work with the teams. But, says Lancos, she'll always be enthusiastic about swimming.

"Softball, basketball, soccer - they're all great sports," she says. "But you need other people for them. To swim, all you need is water. It's your own sport, and you can do it throughout your life."