Six-year-old Jalen Knight is proud to be a Tiger Shark. The Oakland Mills Tiger Sharks, the team with the fewest members in the Columbia Neighborhood Swim League, has won only one meet since 1993, but its members never lack spirit. "[I] just try my best and have fun," said Jalen, who is learning from coach Brandon Thornton.
A sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserve, Thornton missed the 2004 swim season while serving 10 months in Iraq. Upon his return, the league placed Thornton with the Pointer's Run Piranhas, a large team that lost only one meet under his leadership.
"We knew that we wanted Oakland Mills to have someone special, and we approached Brandon," said league supervisor Zulma Whiteford. "He jumped at the opportunity to return to his home team."
So Thornton left the winning River Hill team to coach this season for the neighborhood where he grew up. "I was 5 when I started on this team, and I always wanted to coach," he said. He realized that childhood dream Saturday morning in the season's first meet, against Clary's Forest at the Stevens Forest Pool.
Thornton, 24, remembers the Tiger Sharks' victory 14 years ago, when he was a 10-year-old swimmer on the team. He watched them win only once more since then - as an assistant coach in a meet against Clary's Forest in 2003.
"He's awesome," said parent Paula Jones. "He's a kid in a grown body." While Thornton doesn't hesitate to jump into the pool or splash a few kids, he also pushes the swimmers to achieve their best.
"Brandon is the type of coach Jalen needs. ... He's not soft on Jalen. He's tough," said Jalen's mother, Gladys Knight. Many parents say that Thornton's military background gives him the big voice and commanding presence to direct 99 swimmers, ages 6 to 18, in 65 events at every meet.
Above the chanting of the Tiger Sharks, his voice could be heard. "We've got spirit, yes, we do. We've got spirit. How about you? We've got more! We've got more!"
Because Columbia Neighborhood Swim League teams each draw from an individual neighborhood, the Tiger Sharks' weekly swim meet and its Friday night potluck foster a strong sense of community.
"As much as they have not won, they are so proud of being members of the team, the Tiger Sharks, and of the neighborhood," Whiteford said. Many at the meet wore pompoms in their hair, dressed in orange and black, or painted "OM" on their faces.
"I would call them small, but mighty," Whiteford added. In a league where many teams number over 150 members, the Tiger Sharks often cannot fill every heat, which limits their ability to earn points.
"This neighborhood in general has just a smaller population in this age group," said Diana Capino, whose daughter Annabelle, 8, swims on the team. "This is an old, established neighborhood with a lot of older families."
Still, the Tiger Sharks do not accept defeat. "Brandon was crawling next to [the youngest swimmers] on the side of the pool, shouting encouragement," Capino said. "And that's not surprising - that level of encouragement and involvement."
Thornton and assistant coaches Melinda Sanders, 16, and Alexander Tepe, 21, known as Coach Zandy, develop a bond with many of the swimmers. "We want to build up their confidence in everything," said Sanders, who has swum on the team since she was 5. Tepe, a student at Towson University, manages the Stevens Forest pool and sees many of the swimmers outside of practice.
At least one of the coaches talked to every swimmer before his or her race. "Fly," Thornton said to Jalen Knight. "Fly. Face in. Arms out." At one point, he tied the drawstring on Jalen's bathing suit and found some goggles for a little girl.
"They really care, and they really have a great time, which is the whole motto of our league - 'to make memories,'" Whiteford said.
The Tiger Sharks definitely succeed in that respect. The meets and potlucks at the pool have become social gatherings for teammates and parents. "I know I'll meet new friends and have a really fun time doing it," said Annabelle Capino. On Friday, the Tiger Sharks will throw a fish-fry fundraiser open to the community, instead of the usual team potluck. It will be held from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at Stevens Forest Pool.
"It also gives the parents a way to give back. To run a meet, you have to have at least 30-35 people volunteering," said John Garrett, who volunteers as a team manager.
During the off-season, Garrett started holding informal practices Tuesdays and Thursdays at Supreme Sports Center, which helped swimmers build their skills for the season, he said. "Some of the kids who couldn't even get across the pool are now getting incredible times," said his wife, Gail.
Other volunteers sort ribbons or run the concession stand, which sells chocolate chip pancakes and then hamburgers and hot dogs as the meets progress.
Though less competitive than the Clippers indoor winter club, Columbia Neighborhood Swim League's 14 teams require a significant commitment. Team members practice Monday through Friday for 30 or 45 minutes, depending on age, in the morning or the evening to prepare for the summer's five meets.
"I usually lose some weight over the summer, so that's good," said Nara Allen, 14. "I'm not at home all the time watching TV."
"It also helps me get up in the morning when school starts because we have to get up early [for 8 a.m. practice]," she added. The team has also developed her time-management skills and a sense of individual responsibility, said her mother, Bonnie Johnson.
More than any of those benefits, the coaches hope that the swimmers will walk away with the right attitude. "I don't care if we win or lose," Sanders said.
At the end of Saturday's meet, the score was 279 for Oakland Mills and 312 for Clary's Forest. "These guys ... gave 110 percent," Thornton said. "I'm proud of them."
"I look up to [Brandon] because he's an encourager," said Shelbi Aase, 12. "He's like a father to the swim team. If you're having struggles, he helps you."
Thornton might not be able to coach after he graduates from Frostburg State University next year with a degree in psychology, but the Oakland Mills Tiger Sharks will always welcome him.
Said Shelbi Aase: "We know that Tiger Sharks are just a big family."
Information: Columbia Association Aquatics Office 410-312-6332, or www.swimcnsl.org