Keith Lambert is intent on a big finish.
The Maryville/Alcoa Flying Dolphins coach is retiring at the end of the season. This weekend’s Smoky Mountain Invitational swim meet at Springbrook Pool will be his last.
If the Dolphins are to do well, the 10-under swimmers will have to have a big day on Sunday. To that end, Lambert gave specific instructions to his younger Dolphins on Tuesday as to what they should be doing while the 11-up group is in the water on Saturday.
Nothing. No chores.
“If they ask you to help put a new roof on the house, tell them you need to rest,” Lambert told an attentive group 6- to 10-year-olds.
The meet is scheduled to begin at 8:45 both Saturday and Sunday morning and continue for much of the day. An advisory on Dolphins Web site informs swimmers, coaches, parents and volunteers to “expect to spend the entire weekend at Springbrook Pool.”
Billed the largest outdoor swim meet in the South, the invitational draws better than 1,700 swimmers on 30 teams to Springbrook for two days each summer. Staging the meet - scheduling, timers, clerks, concessions, runners - requires an army of parent volunteers, all under the supervision of meet director David Lazar. Eighty-six races over two days can include multiple heats in each age group in each event.
“They do a knockout job,” Lambert said. “We’ve got a great group of parents, a wonderful group of parents.”
Lambert is in his fifth season as the Dolphins coach. He and wife Kathy have been with the organization a great deal longer.
Each of their three daughters - Tina, Sara and Renee Lambert Hammett - swam for the Dolphins from the time they were 4. They’ve all gone off to college now.
“It goes by fast,” Keith Lambert said. “It goes by real fast.”
Kathy Lambert, a former Tennessee Lady Vol, helped put the Dolphins program on its feet more than two decades ago and served for many years as its head coach.
The invitational is for summer-only swimmers, kids who’ve yet to - and may never - opt for the rigors of a year-round program. The Green Meadow Country Club swim team offers both options. Many of the Dolphins move on to the year-round Blount Area Swim Team or Blast when they want a little more.
“It’s really just depends on what the swimmer wants to do and what works best for their parents,” first-year Green Meadow coach Stephen Langdon said.
Most of the swimmers under Lambert’s direction on Tuesday at John Sevier Pool are far from such decisions. Many, like his daughters once were, are in the water for the first time.
Instructing a 7-year-old on the finer points of the breaststroke can require no small amount of patience. The average attention span at that age can prove decidedly swift in changing direction.
“It’s challenging,” Lambert said. “There’s no doubt about that, but it’s extremely rewarding.”
Lambert is in his element as the youngest Dolphins move from the pool deck to the water Tuesday. Questions have been asked and answered. Hands have been raised and lowered. There’s just one thing.
“I know somebody’s got gum in their mouth,” Lambert says. “I’ve got that radar. I can tell.”
With small children, it’s all in the approach, Langdon said.
“I’m as competitive as the next coach,” he said, “but you want the kid to really enjoy it.”
Green Meadow ran off a string of three consecutive Greater Knoxville Area Interclub Swimming Association City Meet championships under former coach Dan Rule before Village Green ended the streak last season. At the time, Green Meadow had won six of the last seven.
When Rule stepped down after last season, Green Meadow knew just where to go in looking for a replacement. They hired the coach away from Village Green - Langdon.
The formula for success in youth swimming is the same for the Dolphins, Green Meadows and Village Green alike, Langdon said: No coach does it alone.
Green Meadow assistant coach Stacy Honabach, 24, is a teacher in Sevier County. Like other former summer-only swimmers who return to help, the Alcoa High School product has swam more Smoky Mountain Invitationals than she can remember.
Working with kids never gets old, she said.
“It doesn’t feel like a job,” Honabach said.
Lambert gets ample help with the Dolphins from assistant coaches Jeff Knox and Wanda DeWaard, with older Dolphins swimmers like the Young sisters, Brittany and Stephanie, volunteering time to instruct the youngest newcomers.
“They all do a fantastic job,” Lambert said.
The Dolphins have better than 80 swimmers for four paid coaches.
“I love working with kids,” Knox said, “teaching them and helping them learn about my favorite sport.”
Holding the attention of a newcomer to swimming can be tough, Brittany Young said, but “to see them get something right and see the smile on their face” is plenty reward.
The invitational can be dizzying in its scope for an adult. For a 7-year-old, it can be “sensory overload,” Langdon said.
Lambert and Langdon both said they take steps to keep the meet in prospective for younger swimmers. You make practices as close to the pace and structure of the event as possible, both said. When possible, you pair the youngest swimmers to look after each other.
“One of the things I encourage is, ‘Get a buddy and bring some cards,’” Langdon said. “’You can hang out in the tent together.’”
It’ll be difficult to step away, Lambert said. Now that their kids are older, Kathy and he would like to do some traveling. He said he’d like nothing better than to see the Dolphins do well this weekend, but a high placing in his final invitational as coach will be only a footnote. The biggest reward, he said, takes place first thing each year when the Dolphins open practice.
“You see kids at the beginning of the summer that can’t make it across (the pool),” Lambert said.
When they do, he said, how they one day fare at the invitational will always be secondary.