The smells of sunscreen and chlorine filled the air as about 1,000 swimmers from 10 high schools congregated for the Spartan Relays on March 2 at Rio Mesa.
This was the 18th annual meet at Rio Mesa, and it’s the sport’s unofficial season opener in Acorn country. Swimmers from Rio Mesa, Westlake, Thousand Oaks, Newbury Park, Moorpark and Royal competed at the Spartan Relays.
“There are 2,000 people on the deck screaming their brains out,” Rio Mesa head coach Keith McKnett said. “It’s very cool. There’s a lot of energy, and it’s a good icebreaker for the year.”
Icebreaker was an apt description of the event on the chilly Friday afternoon. Temperatures hovered in the mid-50s, and intermittent rain and wind swept through the campus. Swimmers began shivering as soon as they finished their races.
Aitana Sierra-Valdes, a Newbury Park sophomore, began fighting through the crowds to get to her team’s area as soon as she hopped out of the pool.
The 15-year-old’s fleece-lined parka helped her stave off the cold. She said the temperatures reminded her of last year’s Ventura County championship meet.
“I’m just hoping it warms up before the next one,” Sierra-Valdes said.
While huddling under tents and pulling parkas close, rookie and veteran swimmers alike were eager to show how much they improved in the offseason.
Tyler Kane, a senior and fourth-year standout for Royal, said he uses the Spartan Relays as a tuneup. He shaved several seconds in his freestyle and butterfly races.
“I did decent,” the Highlander said. “I just have to be consistent, get good position and not struggle.”
Kane also said the events may be individual, but swimming is a team sport.
“You’re with a team, so it doesn’t matter if you’re first, second or last,” Kane said. “You just have to get out there.”
That’s exactly what 14-year-old freshman Noah Hernandez did when he joined the Thousand Oaks squad this year to meet new friends.
The Spartan Relays were his first competition with the Lancers, but he showed little trepidation as he dried off between swims.
“We train every day,” he said. “We swim 3,300 yards a day. I think we’re prepared.”
The Lancers certainly were prepared: Hernandez and his teammates took silver in the 8 x 50-yard freestyle relay.
It’s not all about winning and losing at the Spartan Relays. It didn’t matter who swam—girls or boys, varsity or junior varsity— the crowds were deafening every time the horn sounded and swimmers leapt from the starting blocks.
Not everyone was fazed by the crowd.
“It’s pretty crazy, but it’s my third year, so I’m kind of used to it,” said James Weir, a 16-year-old junior from Royal. “I swim to stay in shape for water polo.”
Cameron Eickhoff, a 15-year-old Westlake freshman, embraced the atmosphere of the Spartan Relays.
“(Swimming) is fun, but it’s a workout,” the Warrior said. “I love the water. It works out my whole body, and I love the feeling of gliding through the water.”
The social aspect of swimming is a big part of the sport’s culture.
RayLynn Lipsky, a 17-year-old Moorpark senior, observed the action from the starting blocks.
“I play water polo, so I’m on the team for conditioning,” Lipsky said, “but it’s coed, so it’s fun to mingle with your friends.”
The downtime between events creates a family-like atmosphere, said Rio Mesa senior Emily Vera.
“I like (swimming) a lot because despite the fact that it feels like an individual sport, you’re backed by the whole team,” Vera said. “If you’re having a bad day, they’ve got your back. If you’re having a good day, they’re here to celebrate with you.”