Open Water State Meet Here Next Weekend
The Sandhills Sandsharks' Web site has a clock that is counting down to the very second when the N.C. Open Water Championship takes the plunge at Seven Lakes next Saturday.
Meanwhile, Taylor Cooper, the director of the Sandhills Sandsharks local swimming program, is counting on more than 500 competitors to flood the water for the championship. He is also counting on more than 2,000 spectators and supporters to be on hand, lining the banks of Lake Echo to watch an event that has grown by leaps and strokes since its inception in 1998. Those 10 years ago, just 47 swimmers appeared for what was then termed the Sandhills Sandsharks Open Water Swim.
Cooper acknowledges that the support of the N.C. Swimming Board of Directors has helped the championship keep getting larger and better. Cooper, an elite swimmer who once tackled the annual 28.5 mile Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, took advantage of the growing popularity of the sport to build the event.
"I had a background in open water swimming," Cooper says. "And I got wind that open water was going to eventually be an Olympic event. I guess you could say I sort of rode the wave in and was able to get a lot of support from the state in getting this organized."
And the reports proved true as open water swimming has become a widely recognized international sport. This summer in Beijing, the first Olympic 10K Open Water medals will be awarded.
To compete in a 10K requires endurance and athleticism, Cooper says, while also noting that the two-day state championship is about so much more than tackling the exhausting 10K.
"It's about giving anyone and everyone an opportunity to compete in open water swimming," he says. "We're one of three state championships that offer a 10-and-under category. They race 800 meters, and they are within 15 feet of the dam shoreline, so the parents can walk along with them and keep an eye on their swimmers."
The event has multiple categories, ranging from 800 to the 10K, the race that concludes the championship with a 10 a.m. start on Sunday. Saturday's slate includes the 800, 2K, 3K and 5K races.
The swim started on Pinehurst Lake in 1998, then went to Woodlake for a few years before landing at Lake Echo in Seven Lakes for the last four years. Spectators, swimmers and vendors line the lake's dam and shoreline, giving the event a social atmosphere.
"Lake Echo is very viewer friendly," Cooper says. "We were able to set up a triangular course. It's pretty neat. Spectators can see the whole race, sort of like watching a horse race. We're working on making it a festival-type event. We're getting there."
The Sandsharks, who use the event as a major fundraiser, are also getting there with attracting swimmers. Cooper notes that this year's event will have swimmers from Texas, California, Virginia, West Virginia and New York.
Philip Taylor, a freelance photographer who has taken photos of the event for several years, isn't a swimmer. But he became hooked on going after his first venture to the open water swim.
"I really enjoy it," Taylor says. "Everybody is smiling, everybody is having fun. It's just a great atmosphere, and really organized."
Ahead of the Curve
Cooper likes to tell the tale of the second time the event was held. He had talked Chris Thompson into competing in the race. Thompson, who was the American record holder in the 1,500 meter freestyle at the time and an Olympic bronze medalist, ended up winning the 10K. Except for a "tactical mistake," Cooper says, Thompson would have fallen victim to a major upset.
"I kept hearing this number for who was leading the race," Cooper says, "and I tell myself, 'That can't be right.' I mean, the number didn't belong to Thompson. I find out it's some 14-year-old boy from Carteret County. He's just killing him (Thompson). But then he made a tactical mistake, went off course a little bit and Thompson ended up winning."
That 14-year-old turned out to be Chip Peterson, who swims for UNC now and would return in later years to finally claim the championship of the 10K. Peterson has also made quite a name for himself on the international level, having finished sixth in the World Championship Open Water 10K swim two years ago. He finished second in the 10k 2007 U.S. Open Water World Championships Trials, earning him one of two U.S. slots in the 2008 World Open Water Swimming Championships in Seville, Spain.
But the Tar Heel sophomore from Pine Knoll Shores just missed out on a spot on the Olympic team several weeks ago when he finished 13th in the World Championships. The top 10 competitors in the 10K swim event qualified for the Olympics.
Peterson's time was 1 hour, 53 minutes, 41.6 seconds. He finished 20.6 seconds behind the winning swimmer. More importantly, he finished 2.2 seconds behind the 10th and final automatic qualifier.
And Cooper says that is one of the beauties of the two-day event, seeing young swimmers that might not be as well-known as Peterson is now have the opportunity to make a name for themselves.
"It gives the kids exposure to the 10K," Cooper says. "They can compete in Saturday's races and then stay and swim, or just watch, Sunday if they want."
The Real Deal
The most important part of the championship may be the impact it has on Moore County, and on the Sandhills Sandshark swimming program.
Cooper says that with so many people coming from all over that the event helps the county economically. With it being the Sandsharks' major fundraiser, it also is a godsend for the local club. And not only because it raises money for the club, but also because of the chance it gives the local swimmers to get involved in a meet that draws so much attention.
"The kids get to swim, and they get to help run the event," Cooper says. "Open water is so different from pool racing. There are no lines, like in a pool. You have to pay attention. It helps the kids focus. If they don't pay attention they can swim off into never-never land."
Most of the 80-some members of the local club will be taking part in at least one of the races over the two days. The two days are just a small part of the Sandsharks program. For more information about the many programs the club offers, go to its Web site sandshark.org.
There is also a link to the home page for the N.C. Open Water Championship available on the Sandsharks' site. It offers information about parking for the event, categories, starting times and a map of the lake course.
Cooper and the Sandsharks know the clock is ticking, but it isn't with trepidation that they wait: it's with excitement.
"It's a fun couple of days," Cooper says. "Swimming is a sunny sport. This is like sitting at the beach and having something entertaining to watch."
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