By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Last week, as the potentially historic winter storm Nemo (since when were winter storms named?) barreled down on Massachusetts, there was widespread fear and cancellations. School was canceled. Flights were canceled. Activities and athletic events were canceled – including, perhaps now famously, all Massachusetts high school sectional swim meets.
It is ironic that Nemo, once known as that wonderful, happy little cartoon fish protagonist who was urged to “just keep swimming” in Pixar’s “Finding Nemo,” was now preventing swimmers from swimming in a championship meet.
Upon news of the cancellation, most people would sigh, hang up their goggles, and lament about the end of their season. Instead, these swimmers didn’t get passive.
They got organized.
MA high schoolers, particularly those in Western MA, wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. They flocked to social media. They created a grassroots campaign that rose quicker than Occupy Wall Street. They created a unified Twitter hashtag called #BringBackWesternMass and solicited support from swimming personalities and Olympians and coaches. These high schoolers believed it was unfair that their sectional meet – the final meet of their high school swimming career – was completely canceled and not rescheduled (nor was there a back-up plan), unlike other sports’ sectionals.
Literally overnight, the campaign garnered huge support from within the swimming community. Rowdy Gaines lent social media support. Then Ryan Lochte chimed in. And Elizabeth Beisel. And Missy Franklin. Garrett Weber-Gale, Natalie Coughlin, and Bob Bowman all retweeted or vocalized support for the cause. By the next day, it seemed as though the entire swimming world was behind the cause, tweeting, re-tweeting, or lending some support via Twitter. And their voices were heard.
The pressure began to work. First, the Western Sectionals were “brought back” but were not officially sanctioned meets. The MIAA would not allow swimmers in these rescheduled meets to qualify for their state championships, no spectators (parents, friends, family) could attend the meet, and no official medals would be handed out. Swimmers continued to tweet and message and pressure. Then, a few days ago, the MIAA announced a change-of-course: it announced that every single Western MA swimmer who qualified for the officially-canceled sectionals would be allowed to swim in the state championships the following week.
#BringBackWesternMass quickly morphed into #BroughtBackWesternMass.
Instead of a swimmer’s career ending in a crowd-less pool on a Monday afternoon, now, Western MA swimmers will have a chance to end their career at the state championships. Their parents will be able to see them swim. Their times will count. Their medals and placements will mean something “officially.” As @EagleSportsZone, which covers sports in Western Massachusetts, tweeted out earlier this week, “If that isn’t a complete win for the #BringBackWesternMass crowd, I’m not sure what is.”
It was a huge victory for what began as a small grassroots movement. And it was possible because the community embraced the fight. Those high school swimmers proved their passion, they were relentless in their protests, and as a result, they enacted real change.
There are things the swimming community can learn from this rapid-fire, grassroots social media movement.
Social media has some power. If a school cuts your swimming program, or if a pool is being threatened to be shut down, don’t let it happen. Be vocal. Make your voice be heard. Coordinate with others and get organized. Take to social media, and you’ll never know what could happen. Maybe even Ryan Lochte, with his one million followers, will lend his support.
Second, know this: The swimming community cares about each other. It’s tight-knit. Why else would huge numbers of Olympians take time out of their day to lend support to a tiny Western MA high school sectional meet? Because swimmers know the grueling schedules, the hard morning workouts, and the difficult sets involved with our sport. To see swimmers who endured the slings and arrows of an entire season not have an opportunity to compete was heartbreaking. And that heartbreak led to incredible empathy and support. The swimming community is close. Through our unified passion for the sport, we can be unified against those who perhaps don’t understand what these meets mean to swimmers, or who want to cancel meets, or cut teams, or close pools.
The biggest lesson, though, is that anyone, anywhere, with a cause can make change. I remember waking up to receiving ten or so messages from various MA high school swimmers on my Twitter account. I clicked through their #BringBackWesternMass hashtag and read their messages from hundreds of Western MA swimmers, saw their photographs, listened to their pleas, and heard their passion. Then I too became involved. It was impossible to sit back and not act.
Swimming is a sport, in many ways, for the little guys. We don’t do it for the fame. We don’t do it for the money. We don’t have widespread mainstream media covering the sport on a 24/7 news cycle. What we have is each other. And when a meet is canceled, or another college cuts their program due to “budget concerns,” or when a pool might be closed forever, the swimming community unites and sticks together. Which is important to understand in this day and age when seemingly any sport, such as wrestling – one of the oldest Olympic sports – can be cut from the Olympics. It’s important, now more than ever, to realize and utilize and embrace our own community and keep our sport thriving at all levels.
Despite Nemo’s attempts, and thanks to support of an entire passionate swimming community, Western MA swimmers will just keep swimming.
Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USA Swimming and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @ MikeLGustafson.