July 20, 2005 - To the members of the Pusch Ridge Christian Academy swim club, the game is easy: hit your opposing target in the head with a soft four-square rubber dodge ball while protecting your own team's target.
The result is a tangled conglomeration of legs, arms and playful squeals at the far end of the Oro Valley Municipal Pool - an impromptu game designed on the fly, fittingly dubbed "bongo ball."
"This is one of three days all year they get to interact like this," said Pusch Ridge head coach Stan Valacer at a team practice in late June. "It's a chance for the older and younger kids to interact."
When not gunning for each other's swim caps, the boys and girls are aiming for a different, more unified goal: win swim meets and improve with every stroke, splash and kick in the water.
On July 13 in the pool at Amphithe-ater High School, the Penguins proved they weren't just playing around, finishing the San Pedro League Championships in second place with 590 points, 70 behind Ventana Canyon.
"We were predicted to finish dead last," Valacer said about the squad, which entered the championship meet in fourth place out of four teams in the regular season, "but we're not going out without a fight."
The Penguins were paced by stellar performances from Chandler Espy, 8, and Lauren Baker, 12, en route to winning 20 of the meet's 60 events. Espy claimed first in three events, while Baker set a Southern Arizona Aquatic Association record in the 50-yard backstroke.
Like Espy, Baker also won three events and was among 20 Pusch Ridge swimmers and relay teams who claimed a first place finish.
Even though Pusch Ridge won the past four division championships, this year was supposed to be a "rebuilding year" for the school, said Valacer, who swam in college for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
Ultimately, being rock solid summer after summer comes at a price in the SAAA. Every year, the organization realigns its 27 teams into six divisions based on what it perceives to be the strength of the club. Four straight division titles caught the attention of league officials, who placed the Penguins into the San Pedro Division this year to square off against formidable opponents Ventana Canyon, Eastern Hills and Sabino Canyon, all programs that feed into the swimming powerhouse of Catalina Foothills High School.
Motivation is not hard to find when you're facing the best.
"Our competitive juices have been kicked up a notch," said team President Merritt Cain, who estimates that is takes about 20 quality swimmers to be successful in the SAAA championship.
Due to vacations and summer maladies, Pusch Ridge took roughly 120 to 130 of its 200 swimmers to the league championships at Amphi, 25 of whom scored points. The two dozen swimmers who lapped up points for the Penguins are a hodgepodge of athletes from the elementary to high school level.
If it were possible to leave a trail of fire behind while swimming laps, Espy and Baker would have already burned down the Oro Valley Municipal Pool and surrounding James Kriegh Park.
Baker's record in the 50-yard butterfly (29.62 seconds) broke the old mark of 29.89 that had stood since 1992.
When speaking of local swimming lineages, you would be remiss to omit the Espy one. The waterlogged family - which consists of Chandler, Samantha, 10, Tyler, 12, and Ryan, 13 - has dominated Tucson's club swimming scene for years, despite the fact that the students attend Immaculate Heart, a school that doesn't have a swim team. At Amphi, all four scored points for the Penguins. A team scores points in an event by finishing a swimmer in the top three places.
"He's probably the fastest 8-year-old in Tucson," Valacer said about Chandler.
Pusch Ridge is loaded with family combinations other than the Espy clan, and none are more successful than the Hills.
The duo of Madison Hill, 15, and her brother Drew, 12, is among the best the Northwest has to offer in the pool. Both earned first place finishes at the Amphi meet.
Drew finished first or second in every meet this season and claimed the No. 1 overall spot in the boys 11-12 division, highlighted by his first place showing in the 50-yard freestyle.
"It's awesome. This is the best team I've ever been on," Drew said. "Everybody works together as a team."
Drew's teammate and sister, Madison, has created some waves of her own. In her first meet at Marana High School in the fall, she set a school record in the 100-yard backstroke. The winning continued through the summer, when she won first place in the 50-yard butterfly at the SAAA championship.
Another high school swimming phenom of note is Lindsey Miller. A multisport athlete at Ironwood Ridge High School, Miller is at home in the water, where she claimed a first place medal in the 50-yard freestyle at the championships. She also took home the award for the most points in the women's 15 to 18 division, with 18 points.
Although the Pusch Ridge Swim Club has been around for decades, it hasn't been until recently that its numbers have seen a boom.
"Our little swim team has gone from 135 to 200 kids," said Cain - whose daughter, Olivia, 6, finished first in the 4- to 6-year-old girls 25-yard backstroke - about its recent enrollment surge.
That "little team" has grown into the largest swim club in Southern Arizona, with 200 swimmers, but its small, family-friendly atmosphere has yet to wane.
They range in age from 4 to 18, and while the major demographic is the 8-and-under group, the rest balance out in age groups.
What is skewed, however, is the ratio of girls to boys. Girls far outnumber their counterparts by about 130 to 70. When it comes to drawing boys to sports, swimming often takes a back seat to baseball and soccer.
Two hundred kids means a large fan base of moms, which is evident by the contingent of family matriarchs who congregate for every practice at the northwest end of the pool, a group Cain refers to as "The Mom Posse."
Although it won't send any renegade cowboys scurrying for their saddles, this posse is worth its weight in pilfered gold. It takes about 60 parents to operate a single home swim meet. From timers to security guards to concessionaires, parent volunteers are a valued commodity, considering the Penguins compete at home in six of their eight regular season meets from April through the start of July.
The idea of parents working at swim meets and games is not revolutionary. What separates Pusch Ridge from other swim clubs is the ownership. The club is a parent-run operation in which the coaches work for the parents rather than vice-versa. The result is a low turnover of kids from year to year, which in turn explains the boom in enrollment.
Simply tossing kids into pool lanes four or five swimmers deep doesn't translate into success. For every kid who is in the pool religiously, every day, there are those who swim halfway down a lane during a meet, grab the rope and wave to mom and dad, which in Cain's and Valacer's eyes is perfectly all right.
After all, building lasting memories in a safe and fun atmosphere is the main goal for most kids.
"They all think they are fast," said Cain, who added that many just like to collect all nine different medals given out at every meet to all finishers.
"Not every kid is an Olympic athlete or a state champ," Valacer said. "So mostly it's about improvement. And whether it's teaching a kid how to turn or stroke, it's to give them something to feel good about themselves. That's a victory in my book."