FAMILY- Dif'rent strokes: Swimming takes time, time, and more time

Holly, Hannah, and Hogan Harper (with their dad, Ernie) spend hours each week at the Fairview Swim and Tennis Club pool practicing for the Virginia Gators swim team.

Soccer, football, baseball, lacrosse. Any sport a child plays requires a significant time commitment on the part of parents. But competitive swimming may splash into a league all its own. 

Just ask Ernie Harper. Juggling swim practices for his three children– 14-year-old Holly, 12-year-old Hannah, and 10-year-old Hogan– can cost Harper as much as 20 hours a week either poolside  or on his way to or from one of the 17 practices his three kids attend. And that doesn't even include frequent "away" meets, which can eat up the better part of a long weekend.

"It pretty much consumes our lives," says Harper, an attorney, who shares the swim commitment with the children's mother, Karen Harper.

The Harper kids swim for the Virginia Gators, a competitive team started in 2000 by coach J.J. Bean at the Fairview Swim and Tennis Club off Rio Road. Holly started swimming for the team four years ago and says that right from the start, "it just felt right." Hannah, who started at the same time, agrees: "I tried other sports, but I just wasn't any good at them."

Both girls have excelled in the water. Holly, who practices at 5:30am five mornings a week– in addition to one weekend and two evening practices– has set her sights high: the 2012 Olympics.

Although the Jack Jouett eighth grader competes in all strokes, she says back stroke is her best. She's already qualified for national competition, and she's just six seconds off Olympic trial qualifying time. She's also hoping to swim for UVA after she graduates from high school in 2012.  

Hannah, a sixth grader at Jouett, says she's aiming for the 2016 Olympics– but she needs to shave 12 seconds off her best time in the butterfly to qualify. Before then, she hopes to rack up regional wins.

Coach Bean says both girls can go far if they stay focused. But the demands of an elite swimmer are even more intense than the current Harper schedule. The most serious swimmers, says Bean, train four hours a day, six days a week, including weight lifting, core strength work, running, and, of course, swimming. Even more important than being in top physical condition, however, is getting emotionally and psychologically prepared.

"You need to step up and do amazing things at the right time," he says. 

Striving for such high goals doesn't come without a price, and Holly, with her eight practices a week, is quick to identify what's she's given up to pursue her dream.

"I don't have a social life," she says with a rueful smile, citing her early morning rise time (5am) for practice, and evenings and weekends spent at the Fairview pool or traveling to meets as far away  as Roanoke, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.

Her father worries sometimes about balance in his oldest daughter's life, but finds that her friends on the team provide a social outlet. He says that away meets with close swimteam pals serve as a weekend-long slumber parties.

Hannah, who practices five times a week, says she, too, has to pass on invitations from school friends, but she still manages to balance socializing and swimming. Still, she realizes she'll have to up the ante if she wants to compete nationally– or especially internationally.

"I'll do what I have to do," she says.

Hogan, the youngest Harper, practices three times a week. He says he loves swimming but isn't ready to say whether he'll stick with it long term.

"I'd like to try football," he says. And that's fine with his father, who says he encourages all three kids to swim but wouldn't push it if they didn't want to do it.

"They're the ones driving this," he laughs, even if he's the one doing all the driving.

In fact, he says, if Holly doesn't do her homework or her grades suffer, swimming is the privilege he'd take away. He notes she hasn't missed a practice yet.

"I want to do this," she insists.

Considering the other interests some teens pursue, Harper's happy his time's taken up with swimming.

"It's a big commitment," he admits, "but it keeps them out of trouble."