The contesting of the 1981 United States Indoor Swimming Championships at Harvard University's Blodgett Pool marks the first time the meet has ever been held in New England. This, coupled with the recent successes of Bernal's Gator Swim Club--the host team for this year's meet--symbolizes the arrival of big-time swimming in this area.
Depending on how Coach Joe Bernal juggles his relay lineups, the Gator squad for this year's Nationals may include as many as 13 swimmers, the largest New England entry in meet history.
With its 16th-place finish at last summer's Senior Nationals in Irvine. Calif., the club demonstrated that it has quality swimmers as well as quantity. With that performance, the Gators became the first New England squad ever to crack the top 20.
While engineering the team's rise to national prominence. Bernal continues to emphasize dominance of the local scene at both the senior and age-group levels.
At the New England Age Group Championships in early March, the Harvard-based team mopped up the competition with a combined total of 1508 points. Little Rhody was a very distant second with 640.5.
Two and a half weeks ago, the Gators journeyed to Little Rhody's home pool at Brown University for the New England Senior Championships. With 2049.5 points the team surpassed last year's winner, the New England Barracudas, who gained second with 1972 points. This time the Gator women clearly established themselves as a force to be reckoned with, topping that division and showing particular power in the distance freestyle events. The Barracudas nabbed the number-one slot in the men's division.
Despite the number of up-and-coming youngsters in the age-group ranks. Bernal and his staff will rely heavily on swimmers from the collegiate level for this meet.
Making his final appearance as a competitive swimmer is the most successful Gator ever. Olympic Silver Medalist Bobby Hackett. Although his recent NCAA showing was not one of Hackett's best, it was only disappointing by his own standards. He is a two-time National Champion and a member of that very small and select group of milers who have gone under the 15-minute barrier. In his final meet and home pool. Hackett is expected be a factor and score big points for Bernal's Gator Swim Club.
Larry Countryman, Hackett's teammate on the Harvard squad, arrived on the National scene four years ago with Foxcatcher, but switched to the Gators last year. Countryman is also a distance freestyler and the heir apparent to Hackett on both Gator and Harvard squads.
Although he'll return to Paramus Red Wave this summer, the versatile Ted Chappell, who paced the Harvard squad to another Easter Collegiate Title earlier this year with three wins, will also swim for Gator.
For the women, Elaine Palmer will swim the 100 and 200 back, as well as the 400-yd. IM. Palmer, who recently turned in an impressive performance at the AIAWs, has been coming on strong in the last three years.
"I enjoy my affiliation with club swimming immensely. The opportunity to work with swimmers of all ages, male and female, has made me a better coach. I think that the balance I get from coaching at both the collegiate and club levels enables me to be more efficient with both groups." Bernal said recently.
"With Gators we have emphasized development at all the age divisions, with particular interest in the lower groups, so we have a firm base for the future," he added.
In some form or another Bernal's Gator Swim Club has been in operation for 12 years. Before starting his own team Bernal coached at Badger Swim Club in Larchmont, N.Y.
Operating off the Fordham University campus in Bronx, N.Y. for eight years. Bernal started a second club when he took over the reins at Harvard in September of 1977
The reputation he established with the New York team allowed Bernal to hold tryouts immediately upon his arrival in Cambridge from which he selected 35 swimmers. Some 25 of those athletes are still with the program.
For the first year. Bernal maintained both clubs. Much of the actual coaching of the New York Club was done by three assistants. After a while the nightly phone calls between Cambridge and New York to iron out the finer points of workouts coupled with the commute Bernal made on the shuttle flight every Saturday and Sunday throughout the first season grew tiresome and the New York Club was disbanded with most swimmers moving to Badger.
"That pace never would have been possible without the dedication and organization we have within the Gator program. Not only can I delegate responsibility to my assistants, but also to the parents of team members. We get an invaluable amount of support from the families," Bernal says.
Bernal's assistant with the Harvard squad and the newly formed Cambridge division of the Gators was Steve Berizzi. Proof that Berizzi learned his lessons well was his selection as meet director for the recently held NCAAs. The present staff includes Jack Ryan, who also assists with the Harvard men, Brian Gordon and Joe Drolett.
Currently, Bernal's Gator Swim Club includes 75 to 80 members. Since the conception of the present club three-and-a-half years ago, the squad has built up membership with semi-annual tryouts.
"We accept anyone who can handle the workouts. If a kid does all four strokes and makes an honest attempt for two hours then we will accept them. Usually they realize for themselves if they are in over their heads. We almost never have to cut a swimmer: he or she will ordinarily do that without being told," Gordon says.
Competitive swimming in New England is growing rapidly but must vie with the traditional winter sports for the attention of ambitious athletes.
The New England Barracudas, which left Harvard after the Ray Essick era, operate on a satellite basis using as many as seven pools during the summer season. Unfortunately, the implementation of Proposition 2 1/2 may force some of the pools they use to close.
Drew Donavan and Charlie Johnson will represent the Barracudas at the meet this year. Johnson, a freshman at Stanford and a native of Lexington, Mass., will compete in the 100 and 200 Fly. Donavan, a distance freestyler in his final year at North Andover H.S., is bound for Texas next year.
One of the major differences between Gators and its New England rivals is the degree to which the coaches seek out competition. While setting back slightly the number of invitationals attended, Bernal tries to fit in dual meets with some of the country's top clubs each year. The schedule has included the Cincinnati Pepsi Marlins and Dad's Club (Houston, Texas), among others.
"We schedule meets with the top clubs if we can because we want our swimmers exposed to the top competition. We don't want them to fear the stronger teams or laugh at the weaker ones, but instead look upon each and every meet as a challenge, the opportunity to improve. Our entire staff and the parents of team members are dedicated to providing the swimmers with the chance to become first-class swimmers." Bernal says