Each summer weekend, more than 2,700 children gather at city pools for Irvine Swim League meets, which bring out the whole family for fun, games and friendly competition. Irvine’s Master Plan envisioned community pools as gathering places.

JUST ADD WATER

by LORI BASHEDA

I had just stepped onto the deck of Greentree pool Saturday morning, but it felt like I had stepped back in time.

Kids in swim caps are cartwheeling across the grass past moms and dads in lawn chairs.

The air smells of suntan lotion. Wet towels hang from pop-up tents. And Journey is playing over the loud speaker.

The same scene is playing out across Irvine — all summer long.

There are 22 swim teams in the city — with a whopping 2,700 kids — and they square off at friendly meets every Saturday through July. It has the feel of summer camp.

And if I were still a kid, I’d be signing up.

This morning the Greentree Gators are hosting visiting team College Park Splash.

Coaches are calling out heats as kids line the pool, cheering at their teammates as they slice through the water.

Sara Willis has been part of the Irvine Swim League every summer for seven years. Her son is 12, and her daughter is 6.

“I love the sense of community, and I love being at the pool in the afternoons on warm summer days,” she says. “A lot of these kids are from our school, so the kids get to see their friends all through the summer.”

Swim League teams practice Monday through Thursday at their home pool and either host other teams on Saturdays or travel to other neighborhood pools for meets.

Willis’ daughter, Scarlett, says she likes everything about summer Swim League “except the backstroke.”

The meets have a pool party vibe. Kids who aren’t swimming or cheering on their teammates are slurping shave ice, playing board games on blankets or, in the case of the Greentree Gators, doing the Electric Slide. The retro line dance is the team’s halftime ritual. Right after the Junior Gators (swimmers under 5) have a fun race, music blasts over the loud speakers.

The teens climb up on the blocks while the younger Gators crowd behind them.

Even some parents get in on it.

The Irvine Swim League began in 1985 “to make sure our children in Irvine are water-safe, and then to have friendly competition and instill a love of swimming,” Director Lizzie Howard says.

This year, more than 2,700 Irvine kids, ages 5-18, are involved.

“The most ever,” Howard says.

The league has some claims to fame. Olympic gold medalist Amanda Beard was once a member.

“We love that we instill a passion for swimming,” says Howard, whose own son went on to swim for Duke. “So kids know what it feels like to be healthy and fit.”