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River Strokes

Apr 25, 2014 09:00AM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Mary Lou Baker

Summer is a big deal for the more than 200 Annapolis area youngsters who belong to one of the six area swim teams in the Severn River Swim Association (SRSA). They practice hard on weekdays, but Saturday is “show time,” when the 6–18-year-old swimmers compete for blue, red, white, or gold ribbons as their families and friends cheer them on while enjoying the festive atmosphere and the bittersweet edge of competition. Many arrive by boat and some wear shirts bearing the proud motto “River Teams Rule. Any Fool Can Swim in a Pool.”

Image titleSRSA swimmers come from the Severn River communities of Sherwood Forest, Ben Oaks, Olde Severna Park, Round Bay, Epping Forest, and Linstead. Team members are adventuresome, eschewing the relative comfort of a tidy concrete structure in favor of the natural waters of the 16-mile Severn River. From an early age, they learn to conquer the challenges of open water swimming as they deal with seaweed, crabs, eels, sea nettles, and boat wakes to swim freestyle, breast stroke, back stroke, and butterfly in racing lanes lined up for the meets.

And—whether they know it or not—these youngsters are carrying on a 91-year tradition of competitive river swimming that began nearly a century ago.

Sherwood Forest Club, founded in 1915 as a summer colony for families from the Baltimore/D.C. area, started the party in 1922 when it incorporated a swim team into its camp program.

Image titleAlthough the exact beginning of the river league is unknown, its origins date back to pre-World War II, when it was part of the AAU. Pines-on-the-Severn and Winchester-on-the-Severn, two of the original communities, left the river league for pools in the 1970s, about the same time that Ben Oaks and Epping Forest joined the league. Over the years, other communities joined in to establish an official competitive river swim league.

Every participating community’s members contribute their time and talents during the June–August season. Individual leaders in the SRSA include Jill McKay of Linstead, Sophie Gassman of Epping Forest, Jenny David of Round Bay, Ginger Youngwood of Olde Severna Park, Patti Kulhman of Ben Oaks, and Sarah Winn of Sherwood Forest.

Winn, a Montessori school teacher who summered in Sherwood Forest and now lives in Massachusetts, started swimming for Sherwood when she was 12. She returned as assistant swim director for the Sherwood Forest Camp in 2005, and became swim director in 2008. Winn worked under George Kropp, a history teacher at Calvert Hall, succeeding Kropp when he retired in 2011 after 40 years as SRSA’s facilitator and meet director. “Mr. Kropp was the face of our Saturday river meets,” Winn says. “His love of river swimming, together with his long tenure as SRA’s meet director, are the reasons that the river league has lasted so long,” says Winn, noting that Sherwood’s Main Pier is dedicated to Kropp.

Image titleSherwood and Ben Oaks are the two largest teams in the league, with Ben Oaks hosting SRSA’s championship meets in its unique 50-metre river pool. It is called Scott’s Pond in honor of Don Scott, the engineer who discovered an artesian well on community property. That well became the source of fresh river water for the pool, which is pumped out every year, cleaned, then refilled with fresh water over a layer of sand. It is a labor-intensive community project that involves residents of all ages.

“Our river swim program is robust and very active,” says William Moulden, a second generation Sherwood Forest resident who swam in the sixties and seventies and whose kids swam in the eighties and nineties. He has been the Sherwood Forest Camp Director since 2003 and sees his role as a preserver of a tradition passed down by the earliest settlers of this close-knit community. “River swimming in the Severn is the best it’s been since the late 1980s,” says Moulden, who attributes this to the cumulative effect of rigid environmental laws in place since 1988.

Moulden emphasizes that the Severn River’s water quality is regularly monitored for cleanliness by the Anne Arundel County Health Department. “The rare times we’ve had to move from the river to a pool were because of the seasonal stinging nettle infestation,” he says. “There is a current urban myth that it is unsafe to swim in the Bay. While this is true for Baltimore Harbor and a few tributaries of the Bay, it is not true for rivers like the Severn.”

Image titleMoulden identifies the competitive titans of river swimming over the years as: Bobby Asher, who dominated river swimming competition in the 1960s, started for the Dallas Cowboys, and later played for the Chicago Bears; Acacia Walker, the All-American lacrosse star at the University of Maryland; Elena Delle Donne, captain of the USA World Basketball Team and a candidate for Rookie of the Year in the WNBA; and Capt. Lang Reese, recent commander of the USNA’s Naval Support Facility at the mouth of the Severn.

Many of the Sherwood Forest team members are third-and fourth-generation swimmers. Among them are the children of local physicians Ed and Joe Morris and Brian Klepper, a former swimmer in the SRSA. Lore has it that Dr. Joe was faster than Dr. Eddie “back in the day” and Dr. Brian’s wife Jennifer says that their kids (Audrey, 11, and Will, 10) far exceed their Dad’s record as competitive swimmers. The generations mingle during a popular event that allows swimmers of all ages to compete in the Unlimited Division—an occasion when the youngsters often beat their elders. “A lot of bets have been lost in these races,” Mrs. Klepper says. “An offhand wager about who does a better butterfly can backfire.”

Image titleOlde Severna Park resident Ginger Youngwood spent childhood summers in Sherwood Forest and swam on its river team, as did her 81-year-old mother. Her three children have all been river swimmers for the Severna Park team. “Now that I live across the river from Sherwood, I try to keep the tradition going, which is why I am so involved in the SRSA,” she says. “There is something special about swimming in the Severn with all the seaweed, crabs, jellyfish—and the fact you can’t see where you are going because sometimes the water is so murky,” she says. “You have to have certain toughness in you to do it.”

Gretchen Taylor Mayr, the archivist for Sherwood Forest, is the daughter, mother, and grandmother of river swimmers. Her father swam in the river meets pre-World War II and she keeps a scrapbook of awards she and her family members won in the meets, including a medal that belonged to him. Until recently, Mayr and former teammates Karen Howell, Mary Louise Bowyer, and sisters Lynn and Sally Shank took part in medley races. “My best stroke is freestyle,” she says proudly.

“Words strain and crack in trying to express my emotive thoughts about river swimming,” Moulden says, when asked to describe the special nature of river swimming. “It is a mix of old school freedom and the idea of providing consequential experiences to our children,” he says. “The Bay is a common luxury beyond mere written words.”