Starter is coming to a halt

THE BALTIMORE SUN

An era will be ending next month when Bob Russell steps down as the announcer and starter for the Harper's Choice Challenge swim team.

The 59-year-old Russell has held the job for almost 20 years, volunteering every Saturday morning for the Challenge, which competes in the Columbia Neighborhood Swim League.

The Longfellow resident is a full-time free-lance writer with a lifelong interest in the theater. Russell also owns Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre in Baltimore and directs one show a year.

Russell is stepping down because youngest son Danny turns 19 in August and will come to the end of his Challenge career. Russell connected with the team when his middle son, Matthew, now 23, first joined the team - and he has stayed ever since.

How did you get involved with the team?

Matthew started with the team when he was 5 years old, and they're always looking for volunteers. I guess my bottom line is that if you give me a microphone and a spotlight, then I'm in my glory. The meets start at 8 a.m. and last [about] four hours. The kids needed volunteers.

What were you supposed to do to learn this job?

We had to go to training, and we have to go every year so that we know the rules. We swim under the rules that were set up by the CNSL. It's about three hours on one day. The visiting team supplies the starter for the meet while the home team provides the referee, who is usually the starter. The reason for that is the starter goes to training for stroke and turn [judges] and starting. ... I was a little less sure of myself in the beginning. But I've become more trained and more experienced and less apt to make mistakes.

What is a mistake you made in a meet that you can look back at and laugh?

In a medley relay at the beginning of the meet, I was getting swimmers ready to go. It was the 15- to 18-year-olds, and they'd been around a long time. I didn't know very much yet, and I said this is the 200-yard mixed-medley relay. You have to start with the backstroke on this, but you have to be in the pool because there's no way anybody can enter the pool from diving position to do that stroke. I didn't remember that. I said, "Swimmers, take your mark." They all kind of turned to me and said, "You want us all to go into the water first, don't you?" They weren't unkind, but I felt a little stupid.

What's one of the hardest things with which you've dealt?

I have the microphone and am the starter and control the pace of the meet. ... I am not really in control of anything else. But because you have the mike and because your voice is being heard, people think you're in charge. Once this 9-year-old banged her head into the side of the pool. Timers are allowed to protect the heads of backstroke swimmers who are 8 and under by placing their hand onto the edge of the pool, [but] the father lambasted me for not protecting his daughter's head. I told him we don't do that for 9-year-olds, and I'm not in charge of that in any way. He just took it out on me and hasn't talked to me in seven years.

But you've had plenty of good laughs while doing this, right?

Oh, it's a lot of fun. It's a lifetime sport, and I'm really glad that my two youngest kids were involved with it. I try to bring more of a sense of entertainment to it. Last week, a man's wife came up and wanted me to announce her husband's birthday. She told me how old he was, and I thought, 'How are we going to handle this?' So we announced his name and wished him a happy birthday, and that we weren't going to say his age, but that we dedicated event number 59 in his honor.

What have you enjoyed seeing the most at these meets over the years?

They've been more general, like watching sportsmanship grow in kids. That's my biggest joy in participating in this league. The Harper's Choice team seems to hold that in high esteem. You see kids who are so far ahead of competitors in races that they are half-a-length ahead, but they'll stay in the water anyway so that the kid that's coming in behind doesn't know how far ahead he was. They don't like to embarrass the others. I think that's kind of cool.

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