Lebanon County's independent swimmers find home at Palmyra
During the Olympics last summer, many people tuned in to watch Michael Phelps and others battle the world in the pool for gold medals.
Every day, swimmers for the Palmyra and Cedar Crest teams hit the water for swim practices, hoping for a little glory of their own.
But what happens when a student at any other school in Lebanon County wants to compete, but their school does not have a pool, let alone a swim team?
Enter Jim Gardner and Cynthia Lyons.
For many years, Gardner has coached swimmers at all levels, from club through college; his wife, Mary, is the head swim coach at Lebanon Valley College. Lyons is the current coach at Palmyra High School. Like Gardner, she also devotes countless hours to coaching, both school and club teams.
While Gardner was taking athletes to Palmyra to swim as independents before Lyons became the coach, their love of the sport and the bond they have forged as a result of it have proved successful. It has allowed a number of athletes from Lebanon County to qualify for the District 3 and PIAA swim meets, something they never would have been able to do if not for Lyons, her team, and the Palmyra Area School District.
This season, swimmers from Annville-Cleona, Elco, Lebanon Catholic and Northern Lebanon competed for times at Palmyra meets. When there was room, Palmyra put these swimmers into live events. If not, they swam at intermission and at the end of the meet.
While one would think that it would be lonely swimming during a break or at the end, it is not.
During a meet Thursday, swimmers from Palmyra lined one side of the pool and athletes from Northern York lined the other, with a handful of swimmers finding spots at the end of the pool. They cheered and encouraged the non-swim school swimmers as if they were members of their own team, showing the epitome of sportsmanship.
“I think excellence in your sport is great, but to see that sportsmanship and that camaraderie, it’s amazing to watch as a coach,” Gardner said. “I get as much enjoyment out of watching that as I do seeing the kids do well.”
Julianne Strickler, a freshman from Annville-Cleona, said, “I’m really thankful that Palmyra lets us come to their pool and lets us swim and join them in their team meetings. It really warms your heart because even though we go to different schools, they still cheer you on no matter what.”
It is that support and willingness to open meets to independent swimmers that has Strickler and Northern Lebanon freshman Brookelle Anderson poised to potentially qualify for the Lancaster-Lebanon League meet and the District 3 championships.
But the road to qualifying for those meets is not an easy one.
Since the L-L meet allows for one entry per event for schools that have pools, independent swimmers often miss out since there are very few “on time” slots available. Additionally, kids like Strickler and Anderson have to travel to South Western High School on Tuesday in one final attempt to qualify for the district meet.
One alternative could be to have a co-op program with either Palmyra or Cedar Crest, but that idea doesn't seem to have legs.
“It’s your school you’re representing, and even though some teams are combined in other sports, I think there’s something to be said to represent just your school,” Gardner said. “They consider themselves Annville-Cleona kids, they consider themselves Northern Lebanon kids, Elco kids.”
But it would certainly be nice to have more meets and a place to call home. That would also allow the schools to enter relay teams.
Even if schools without pools have enough competitors to form a four-person relay team, they are not permitted to enter the district meet, so that further alienates poolless swimmers from their counterparts who are fortunate enough to attend schools that have a pool and sponsor swimming.
But for now, everyone is just grateful to Lyons and Palmyra for the opportunities they have.
“Palmyra has been gracious enough to allow us to come up here and Cynthia is just awesome,” said Gardner, who is hoping that he continues to have athletes qualify for the postseason like Northern Lebanon alum Ethan Gehenio and A-C grad Adam Fox.
Aside from Strickler and Anderson, Gardner is coaching Syreth Mitchell, Joannah Myers and Robby Enigk from Annville-Cleona and Jake Beidler from Northern Lebanon. Elco’s Danika Boltz and Emma Flesher, as well as Lebanon Catholic’s Jack Yengo, also recently swam during Palmyra’s meet with Northern York.
Tuesday, those nine will have to support each other when they swim in the non-swim school district qualifier.
Anderson said, “It’s hard because I don’t have a team there to cheer me on, but there are other kids who don’t have a team, either, and we all support each other and get through it because we all know what it’s like not to be part of a school team.”