LC swim team in uncertain waters

Lenoir City High School’s Madison Wright swims in the 100-yard breaststroke Jan. 21 in the Panthers’ 148-120 win over Heritage High School at the Claire Donahue Aquatic Center.

Students, coaches and parents are worried Lenoir City High School may not field a swim team this year.

The team utilizes the Claire Donahue Aquatic Center each winter for practices and meets under the pool’s insulated bubble.

However, wear and tear on the bubble called for a replacement, which Lenoir City Council and Lenoir City Board of Education have said can’t be afforded in their respective budgets.

“The city couldn’t afford to do the whole cost of the pool cover,” Tony Aikens, Lenoir City mayor, said. “It costs, roughly, $120,000 a year for the upkeep. About $40,000 of that is the maintenance cost throughout the year, especially throughout the winter months. I’ve told several parents that if they can raise $55,000 that the budget committee and I, we’re committed to sharing in that cost, but we just can’t do the whole thing.”

Parents and athletes brought their case before the BOE last month.

“It’s very vital to the swim program,” Robert Scheffer, LCHS swim team co-manager, said. “... I went before the school board about a month ago and we had a lot of our team there and parents. They didn’t even address it. I said what I had to say. It’s pretty obvious they’ve already made decisions before they come into the actual meeting. They didn’t even address (it and) ... they didn’t even say, ‘Thank you for coming.’ They didn’t say anything.”

Scheffer believes the city and BOE are at odds and “pointing fingers” as to who should pay for the bubble replacement.

He believes the school board should help cover the cost of a team asset, similar to how it helps other athletic teams within the school system.

“I actually talked to Dr. (Jeanne) Barker and a couple of them and they basically said, ‘We don’t have the money and we’re not going to do it. We feel like the city should pay for the bubble, not the school board because it’s a city pool’,” Scheffer said. “I get that. I understand that. At the same time, the school board has never supported the swim team. Not even a single dime of money in the 20 years the swim team has been in existence has the school board provided any funding, not even a supplement for the coach. I felt like since they’ve not provided any funding and there’s no plan to provide funding in the future, why not do this one-time thing to help us out? That’s not going to happen.”

Scheffer quickly points to the program’s successful history as a reason to help.

“The swim team has been the most successful team at the high school the last 20 years,” he said. “We’ve been to 17 out of the last 18 state swim championship meets, we’ve had multiple collegiate athletes and we have a gold medalist. What other team can say that? If it was any other sport, the school board would be doing whatever it took to keep that program going. We have to buy our own letters at the end of the year. When I say they don’t give us anything, they don’t give us anything.”

Parents and swimmers have started a campaign to raise $55,000 before Aug. 15. If the team raises that amount, Aikens and city council will cover the remaining $55,000 for the $110,000 project.

If the team is unable to reach that mark, Scheffer fears the team will have to disband.

The team parent board has reached out to several swim clubs around the Knoxville area for available facilities, but every attempt has come up short.

“The problem is if we don’t have the bubble, we more than likely will not have a swim team,” Scheffer said. “We’ve already done some checking. We’ve already checked with the Davis (Family) YMCA, we’ve already checked with Fort Sanders, we’ve already checked with National Fitness Center, we’ve already checked with Green Meadow and all of them have said, ‘We don’t have time in our schedule for you all to practice.’

“That leaves us to UT,” he added. “Well, I have left three messages at UT and nobody has called me back. Basically, my understanding in talking with other swim teams is the only available times at UT, because you have the UT team and Tennessee Aquatics, is you only have like 8 or 9 o’clock at night. We’re going to have to pay for it and our kids and parents ... we just can’t afford the money to get to UT.”

Parents are concerned for their kids’ futures if the team is disbanded.

“If the team has to go practice somewhere else, the hours are going to be something crazy, if we can even find a pool,” Tim Wright, father of LCHS senior Madison Wright, said. “It’s hard for me to see a lot of parents wanting their students to be practicing at 9 o’clock at night and having to drive who knows where — Knoxville or Alcoa. I have a real concern over the situation from a parent’s perspective for a swimmer that’s been swimming since she was 6 years old. Not having that your last year of high school would be kind of disappointing.”