Ask Tim Mercer, head coach for the Jefferson Terrace Jetstream swim team, and he’ll tell you it’s all about the kids.
“They are what’s really important. I love this job because of them,” Mercer said Sunday at the team’s end-of-season swim party at the team headquarters, the Jefferson Terrace pool in Southside.
Ask the parents of swimmers, who range in age from 4 to 18, and they’ll tell you they come to Jefferson Terrace, even though some live in other areas of Baton Rouge, because of the coach.
“When they finish their meets, the first question he asks is ‘Did you have fun?’ Fun is the key, ” said Elaine Politz, whose 7-year-old twins, Alex and Grant, started swimming with Mercer last year.
That’s what she wanted for her children, rather than a strictly competitive atmosphere.
“They are so patient. If they’re not comfortable by themselves, the coaches will get in the pool with them, even if it’s a competition,” Politz said, and that’s the kind of atmosphere she was hoping to find.
It’s clear, at the awards ceremony that began the party, that Mercer knows each swimmer well.
Each team member got a bag filled with their ribbons from the season, and a big gold “medal” — made of a disposable plate painted gold and a ribbon — with a personalized nickname they earned that summer. The biggest smile, the most dramatic, the most likely to keep friends out of trouble, the sassiest, the No. 1 cannonball, the best bellybuster. Each name has a story behind it that, all together, tells the story of summer at the pool.
“Mama! I got the biggest improvement,” Allie Macha, 8, said running to her mother, Courtney, who stood by the pool watching the awards. “Look at all that,” she added, showing her mother the bad bulging with ribbons.
Last year was Allie’s first on the swim team, Courtney said, and she was reserved at first.
“She was learning a lot of new things, and she was still making friends,” she said. But this year, she developed her strokes, learned to get across the pool without assistance, she made friends at school — St. George — who are also Jetstream members and came into her own as a swimmer.
“She loves the butterfly. It was this year she developed a love of swimming,” she said.
Courtney Macha and her husband, Caleb, joined last year because they have many friends in the neighborhood, she said. The swim team and its cadre of patient coaches, which also include Mercer’s children, are an added benefit. While her girls — Allie’s 6-year-old sister Addison also swims on the team, have developed competitive drives, they were allowed to grow into that.
“I like that it isn’t too stressful,” she said.
Rachel Gamble swam at the same pool when she was a child, and now her three children, Garrett, 13, Owen, 11, and Avery, 8, are on the team. To her, it was an easy decision, because it’s a place she knows her children will be safe.
Politz agreed. “I joined here for the family atmosphere, I love the family night,” she said, referring to a weekly swim season ritual that doubles as a fundraiser for the team.
Parents and coaches take turns cooking mass dinners and desserts each Thursday night, sell the plates, and enjoy time at the pool with the whole family.
“Some people do take their plates home and eat, but a lot of families eat here, and swim after,” said Paula Mercer, who says if she wants to see her family in summer, she usually has to come to the pool to do it.
Mercer works for Livingston Parish schools during the year, but each summer, he as acts pool manager, teaches swim lessons, and runs practices for the team, and his daughter Victoria, 18, is an assistant coach. The Mercers have two more grown children who also cycled in and out of the role of assistant coach.
“It’s so much fun,” Victoria said. She and the rest of the team celebrate victories, large and small, all summer long, and that attitude of celebration over competition means swimmers go further, even if they’re still learning.
At the end of June, just before swim season ended, the coaches worked with two swimmers who were still learning how to dive off the starting block.
“I saw them working on it outside of practice when I was lifeguarding,” Victoria said of Isabelle Lieux, 7, and Andrew Messina, 9. Near the end of the season, they got it, she said.
“Now every time I see them, I make them practice it so they won’t forget,” she said.
To see a photo gallery from the swim team, click here.