Christy Trent was there at the start.
Saturday, Trent’s daughter, Sydney, will swim the family’s final races at the Smoky Mountain Invitational at Springbrook Pool, bringing to a close an active association with “the world’s largest outdoor swim meet” that runs the full 37 years of its history.
Trent was a charter member of the Maryville/Alcoa Flying Dolphins, the meet’s sponsor, back in 1972. When the invitational began its storied run the following year, the Dolphins were its first champions.
The meet gained popularity with area swim clubs in short order. By the 1990s, attendance was staggering. Thirty teams, encompassing better than 1,600 swimmers, will swamp Springbrook this Saturday and Saturday. The meet had a record 1,790 take part only two years ago. Dolphin administrators are checking with Guinness World Records to see if the invitation is indeed now the world’s largest.
The Blount County Parks & Recreation-sponsored Dolphins are a program for summer-only swimmers. The last two decades, they have largely had to be content with hosting the landmark meet. Area powerhouses like Village Green, Knoxville Racquet Club and Robindale Woods have dominated the event in recent years. Even the rival swim team at Green Meadow Country Club routinely far outdistanced the Dolphins in the final team standings.
Not so much anymore.
Keith Lambert closed a five-year run as Dolphins’ coach with a bang last summer, directing the team to a fifth-place finish, the best showing since Trent’s group won the inaugural.
There were 50 swimmers on that first team. The Dolphins, under the direction of first-year coach Michelle Brown, will see 230 take to the water this weekend. Together, along with 500 parent volunteers who’ll work the invitational, somehow they get it all done, Brown said.
“It’s really like a big family,” she said.
It’s that sense of family that makes it all go, Christy Trent said.
Trent was 11 when she slipped into a Dolphin swim suit for the first time. Norman McKinnon, the team’s founder, was a genuinely charismatic leader, she said.
“My sister had such a crush on him she wrecked her car when she passed him on the road one day,” Trent said. “That’s how well thought of he was.”
Trent would go on to swim for the University of Tennessee after high school, returning to work with the Dolphins in the summer. Her children, which include son, Kevin, would later follow her to the team. Trent served a two-year stint as Dolphin coach from 1999-2000, with Sydney, then 3, tagging along, close at her mother’s side.
“She was on deck with me,” Christy said. “I almost stepped on her a million times.”
Sydney joined the Dolphins at 7 and hasn’t missed one of the team’s meets, invitational or otherwise, since.
Last year’s fifth place was something to really be proud of, Sydney said.
“It was an amazing year,” she said.
“I think people had more confidence in themselves,” Dolphin relay partner Natasha Strain said.
Sydney, who graduated from Heritage this past spring and swam for the school’s swim team, said she never considered swimming for a year-round program. Something about the summer-only aspect of the Dolphins always had more appeal.
That’s why the medley relay of Caitlin Freeny, Katrina Eccles, Bryn Barrett and Elizabeth Keller stay with the club. The quartet swam to victory in a tune-up meet with Gulf Park on Tuesday. It was great to see the Dolphins swim to fifth last year as a team, all said. That’s not why they stay with the team, though.
“It’s just fun because you get to hang out with your friends,” said Keller.
While Lambert coached the team the last five seasons, it was far from the family’s first involvement. Lambert’s wife, Kathy, coached the Dolphins the four previous seasons. Like Trent, she’d been a member of the inaugural team, also going on to swim for Tennessee. The Lambert’s three daughters all swam for the Dolphins as well.
It’s a balancing act of sorts maintaining the team’s summer-only philosophy and, at the same time, motivating the Dolphins to give chase to the area’s top swim teams.
“I want to continue the legacy of having it a summer-only program,” Brown said. “If (the swimmers) don’t want to be there, they don’t want to be in the water.”
Fortunately, Brown said, she had a good teacher.
Lambert balanced his duties with the Dolphins with his head coaching responsibilities at Maryville High. Brown, who teaches chemistry at the school, was his assistant there. She took the Dolphin post this spring.
“He told me to have fun and follow my heart,” Brown said. “We worked so well together.”
It was great to see Lambert go out the way he did last year, Brown said. The job now, she said, is to build on that momentum.
“I’m as competitive as anyone you’ll ever meet,” Brown said.
When Sydney climbs out of the pool for the last time on Saturday, it’ll be no small thing, Christy Trent said.
“A lot of emotion,” she said. “I’m proud of both of them. They passed up a lot of times where they could have stayed over with friends because they had a meet. They were dedicated. It’s time. We’ve given a lot. It’s time to pass it on. There are a lot more Dolphins to come.”
The Dolphins are proud of last year’s placing, Brown said. With swimmers like Drew Willoughby, Eli Tate, Seth Jinks and brother and sister combination Zeke and Bailey Carnes all posting great times this season heading into the invitational, the team could make another run. The Tingle brothers — Max, 16, and Sam, 13 — are great leaders.
“They’re just amazing young men,” Brown said.
If the Dolphins don’t match or better last summer placing at the invitational, it won’t be the end of the world, Strain said. To think that way, she said, would be to forget why swimmers and families return to the Dolphins season after season in the first place.
A successful Saturday for Strain?
“If I come out of that pool, we’ll call it a good day,” she said.