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The blue mile

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By Stephen Press
Hometown Weekly Staff

At the south end of Memorial Beach on Dug Pond in Natick, a long line of girls in swim caps wades into the water. Behind them, back on the beach, a slightly smaller group of boys mills about, alternately offering words of encouragement and roughhousing among themselves. Parents crowd around the scene with cameras and phones, some even pulling up their pant-legs to wade into the water in search of better angles.

The girls count off, one after the next. There are 55 in total, all doing what they can to prepare themselves for what is about to come. A few kayakers get themselves into their final positions around the pond.

Then, the pop of a starting gun. The line of swimmers launches into the water in a mass of splashes and foam. The parents look north at the orange buoys bobbing in the distance, hoping for the best.

This is the South Suburban Swim League's annual Ehrlich Mile Swim, and representatives from the Medfield, Needham, Sherborn, Walpole and Westwood swim teams are among the competitors. One can only imagine they're more than a little intimidated by the lengthy course.

"Generally, they tend to be daunted," says Walpole Barracudas coach, Paul Ferraro. "It is a pretty intense course."

"Especially at the beginning," interjects Beverly Woods, also a Barracudas Coach, as she watches the swimmers make their way around the pond.

"Yeah, especially at the beginning," Ferraro concurs, "when you have to go through a bottleneck that isn't wider than, maybe, twenty feet. And you're trying to get fifty or so swimmers through there. That's a little daunting. The whole length of the course being a mile. And especially the last 500 yards is pretty intense."

Intense. Grueling. Daunting. So, if this is so difficult, why are there 55 girls in the water, all striving for the finish line?

"It's one of our big events towards the end of the season. This is kind of what our older kids work up to, especially our swimmers who are going off to college next year," explains Woods, acknowledging that some of the kids in the pond have been swimming competitively since they were very, very little. "They train for this. At practices, they're doing laps on top of laps to get ready and prepare for this."

So, the Mile Swim is a bit of a cherry on top of a rewarding youth swimming career?

"This is their last time to put everything out there," Woods confirms. "We have championships coming up, but this is the big thing."

Meanwhile, an announcer's voice echoes over a PA system: "Our lead swimmer is from Needham, followed by Sherborn and Millis." The swimmers look incredibly far off at the end of the pond opposite the beach. They must surely be a third of the way through their mile, right?

"Not even," says Ryan Schneider, a Natick lifeguard who himself participated in the Mile Swim in his youth. "I did it five times, I think," he says. "It's one of those things - it's fun to do just so you can say you swam a mile." He then cracks a smile. "I was always in the last five, so," he sheepishly trails off.

As the swimmers continue their course around the pond, the parents begin to move to the north end of the beach, inching closer to the dock that serves as the finish line.

"She's a little nervous," says Sherborn's Allan Giesen, whose daughter is among those in the water. "That's pretty far… long way. Hope she's faring well out there. I can't tell."

"She got through the starting section," another more experienced parent interrupts. "She'll be great. That's the hardest part, right over there," she states as she points back at the south end of the beach.

A relieved Giesen smiles as he continues. "I think she's excited. She does participate on a winter team, the Wellesley club team, so she's a pretty strong swimmer. But she's never challenged herself at this distance." A light cheer arises from the gallery as a swimmer - Caroline Soska of Sherborn - leads the pack towards the finish. "To me, it seems like this is the real deal."

Soska powers onwards towards the dock, earning first place - and a blessed chance to catch her breath. Behind her, more swimmers are making their way to the finishing line. The boys will soon follow on their own Dug Pond odyssey. For the swimmers, coaches and spectators, this year's Ehrlich Mile Swim is a success - and it's not even half over.

"This is one of my favorite events to watch," says Walpole coach Ferraro. "I love watching the mile."

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