BRADENTON — Rachel Lightner has high expectations for her senior season.
And, with Braden River’s first swim meet now only a week away, it’s been imperative that the Pirates swimmers spend as much time in the pool as possible.
But, 30 minutes into the second day of practice Aug. 12, Lightner stood leaning against the wall outside the John H. Marble Pool in Bradenton. A look of disbelief and disappoint splashed across her face.
Rather than diving into the pool like their counterparts from rival schools across the area, Lightner and her fellow teammates were still waiting for a lifeguard from Manatee County Parks and Recreation to come and unlock the pool.
It would be another several minutes before the pool would be unlocked, finally allowing the Pirates to get in part of their practice session.
The inconvenience is one the Braden River swim team has been facing since Lightner was a freshman.
“It’s kind of sad,” Lightner says. “Other sports have their own things, but we don’t have a pool. It’s hard because we want to be training as much as we can and we have all of these restrictions.”
The Pirates have used the John H. Marble Pool each of the past four years, during which they’ve dealt with broken pool pumps, among other issues, which have cost them valuable practice time.
Prior to each of those seasons, Braden River has faced the prospect of not having a pool in which to practice. And this season has been no different.
Two weeks before the Pirates were scheduled to start the season, Braden River coach Tripp Schwenk learned from Manatee County Parks and Recreation that the county was planning to close the pool Aug. 19 — the first day of school for students — leaving the Pirates without a practice facility.
“I was very disappointed and somewhat shocked,” Schwenk says. “I know the facility is in need of a makeover, but I had hoped there would have been better communication regarding the county’s intentions for the future of the pool.”
The news was particularly hard on the team, which was left wondering if it would even be able to have a swim season this year.
“I was shocked that they would do that to us,” junior John Graves says. “Honestly, I feel like everyone’s against us. They don’t really care that we work our butts off to compete. It’s a struggle.”
Initially, Schwenk was told Braden River would have to travel 30 minutes across town to G.T. Bray Park and practice from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. rather than its usual practice time directly after school.
However, the distance, and the fact that several other teams, including Manatee, Southeast and the Sarasota Tsunami, also use G.T. Bray, didn’t sit well with the swimmers and their parents.
The Pirates were then told they could use the pool on 13th Street East in Bradenton. But, with no competitive-swimming capabilities, including ropes, backstroke flags, blocks or lane hooks, the pool would need some modifications.
Without any type of community pool in East County, with the exception of the Lakewood Ranch YMCA, where both the Lakewood Ranch High and Lakewood Ranch YMCA Wave Runners swim teams train, the only viable option for the Pirates is the John H. Marble Pool.
“We’re not like Lakewood Ranch, which has a system in place with the (Lakewood Ranch YMCA) pool,” Graves says. “That advantage is awesome. Our major opponent is Lakewood Ranch, and for them to have that advantage is nowhere near fair. How are we going to compete?”
After spending the beginning of August in limbo, the county granted the Pirates a stay of execution, allowing them to continue to use the John H. Marble Pool through the remainder of the season. However, in October, the Pirates will have to pay for the chemicals to keep the pool open.
The team already held a car wash and worked in conjunction with the Athletic Booster Club to raise the $2,500 necessary to pay for the chemicals.
“It’s extremely frustrating for the coaches and the kids, because we don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Beth Saalmann, whose daughter is on the swim team. “Why let the facility deteriorate nine months out of the year?”
Ideally, the Pirates would like to see the school build its own pool, which would allow the team to not only practice at home, but also host its own swim meets — something the team is unable to do currently.
“That would give us a major advantage,” Graves says. “We would be used to the pool, the water, the blocks — it’s an advantage other schools have on us, and one we can’t have on them.”
Braden River also would like to see the county look into renovating the John H. Marble Pool or building a community pool in the East County.
“My hope is that the people of Manatee County and, specifically those who live in the East County, will start demanding more amenities for the area, which will provide all of our children the opportunity to grow and thrive in all respects,” Schwenk said.