Hands up if you dreaded the swimming carnival?

A few years ago my then-nine year old son Declan came home from school excitedly waving a notice. “Mum!” he exclaimed, thrusting it under my nose, “There’s try-outs for the swimming team next Monday, and I want to go in them!” Dec has never been a particularly sporty child, so I was astonished at his enthusiasm, and secretly rather delighted, having been a swimmer myself back in the early 1900’s. I was even more astonished/delighted when he won two heats at his trials and made the team.

But I need to qualify his qualification. Dec and his sister attend a small school. Actually, it’s more like a village school, with just under 150 students and only six classes. There are other much bigger and better-resourced schools in our area, but we chose this one because it’s around the corner from our home and the temptation of never having to compete in the twice-daily parking derby was too much to resist. We were also both very much attracted to the friendly and caring atmosphere of the school. It’s catholic; we’re not… but as my husband likes to say, we’re practising opportunists, and Mary Immaculate Primary was too good an opportunity to pass up.

There are advantages and disadvantages of small schools, but one thing in their favour is that your kids get a place in the sports teams. And the school production, and the choir and the Maths Olympiad if it comes to that, simply because they need every warm body they can get to fill the spots. A neighbour with children at the local state school told me that her grade-four daughter had been devastated when she turned up to try out for her school swimming team, and so had forty others. She never had a chance.

The disadvantage of a small school, though, is that when it comes to competing against those others with populations six or seven times greater than your own you’re bound to be outclassed. This was brought home rather forcibly to myself and the mothers of two of Declan’s mates who had also made the team when we attended our first training session at the local pool. There, in the lanes adjacent to ours, was a school team that would soon be competing against Mary Immaculate at the upcoming Interschool Swimming Carnival. We watched in awe as they donned matching blue caps, stroked neatly through their laps in perfect formation, then practised their relay changeovers with a precision that would impress East Germans. Our kids, in contrast, had never swum competitively. Heck, Declan had never swum a lap of a fifty-metre pool until the trials. Every time one of our under-ten boys dived in we were just happy if they surfaced. Making it all the way down the other end was a complete bonus.

The big day arrived, and our tiny squad was alert but not alarmed… at least, that is, until we actually got to the pool and saw what we’d be competing against. Six other schools were already there, every one at least double our size. Rather unnervingly, the team we were seated next to were warming up, but their voices rather than their legs, chanting the name of their school over and over with increasing fervour and volume. One of the other mums turned to me and whispered “Wow- what do we shout? Go the Immaculates? Come on you Marys?”


I would have answered her, but just at that moment my attention was diverted by the arrival of three more teams from the local private schools. We parents looked at each other in horror. Each of those schools, we knew, had their own indoor swimming pool. Our school doesn’t even have an oval. Many of their swimmers wore bodysuits, and a rumour swept the pool deck that their grade six boys had shaved down for the meet. In comparison, our kids were attired in a motley collection of bikinis and board shorts, and not one had hit puberty. I couldn’t help but notice that the under-ten component of one team was bigger than our entire squad, and that the mothers were clutching stopwatches. It was as if the Chinese, Russian and US teams had just marched into the arena at the Olympics, and we, in comparison, were representing the Faroe Islands.

Within the space of just two weeks the Mary Immaculate swim team had been big fish in a little pool, then well and truly little fish in a big pool. The funny thing is, though, that they seemed to enjoy both states equally. To a child, they were thrilled to be the big fish who had made the team, excited to be representing their school and delighted to be given the day off classes to attend the competition. Yet even once they were there, and very much the small fish relative to the other nine schools competing, their enthusiasm didn’t wane. They loved the excitement and professionalism of the day, yelling madly to support their friends, and that their Mums and Dads were there to support them….  then on the odd occasion when we actually won a ribbon the whole group went mad in a frenzied celebration that could have been heard in, well, the Faroe Islands.

And what about Dec? He did pretty well. Having never dived off a block or to a starter’s gun before the big day, he finished fourth- just out of the ribbons- in the individual freestyle. He told me afterwards that it was fun, but that the event he most enjoyed was the relay, “because I loved being in a team with my friends”. They didn’t place, but you know what? Their changeovers were immaculate.

Kylie Ladd is a novelist, freelance writer and neuropsychologist. Her first novel, After The Fall, was recently released in the US , and her second novel, Last Summer, has just been published.

Is it better to be a big fish in a little pond, or vice-versa? And what were your first experiences of competitive sport?