The summer reports we’re accustomed to hearing don’t use the words “sharks” and “fun” in the same sentence. Except in Needham, where the Sharks are 5-to-18-year-old swimmers participating in the Summer Suburban Swim League.
Identifiable by their blue and gold suits and caps, the Needham Sharks inhabit the waters of Rosemary pool from late June to mid-August. It’s a tradition that dates back more than 40 years, through generations of Needham families (including my own a decade ago). The team originated as a parent-run club called the Needham Swim Association and became a program of Needham Park & Recreation in 2016.
Head coach Kate Curtin was a Shark herself during the summers she was at Needham High School. As soon as she turned 18 she signed on as an assistant coach and is now in her 13th season of coaching, 10th year as head coach.
This fall Curtin also will be head coach of the NHS girls varsity swim and dive team. In addition, she coaches the varsity swim team in the winter season at Norwood High School, where she teaches history. She considers the Sharks special because it’s a recreational team with an emphasis on fun.
“A lot of kids are spending their summer with us because they really like swimming or they want to improve in some way,” Curtin said. “The emphasis should be fun and recreational.
“I think we’re in a time right now where kids have to be really competitive at a younger age in youth sports. So I really like the fact that this is a team that we can take new swimmers that haven’t really had competitive experience before and show them how awesome it can be to be part of a team. Having them see the fun in the sport.”
The fun part comes through for Hannah Lee who joined the Sharks last year and swims with the 9-to-10-year-old group. “The meets don’t give me a lot of pressure because they try to make them as fun as possible,” she said. At the first meet of the season on July 6 she won both her events, the 25-yard freestyle and breaststroke, her favorites. Her father, Calvin Lee, said it’s been a positive experience. “She’s made a lot of friends.”
The Needham Sharks population has dramatically increased in recent years, and the team now has 140 members, up from 40 about six or seven years ago. Curtin attributes that in part to the new Rosemary Recreation Complex facility that opened in 2018. The team also switched practices to evenings at 5:15 Monday to Thursday, a time that is easier for families. She recognizes that change restricts the lap lanes those nights. “With 140 kids … we have 38 in the 9-and-10 year-old group, to get them in the pool safely and give them enough space we end up needing most of the lanes.”
The Afzali family has three Sharks swimming this summer. Eight-year-old Olivia said she has fun meeting new people, while 13-year-old Chloe finds it a great way to get out and hang with friends, including teammate Nora Horton. But 10-year-old Aiden likes the competition. “I win a lot. My dad was a swimmer in college and encouraged me,” he said.
His dad is Youseff Afzali, a longtime swimmer with the Charles River Y and USA Swimming. He appreciates having a summer program for his kids to continue to grow their skills. “The coaches really care about their development,” he said. “And it’s great to hang out with other parents. It’s turned into a great community program.”
Curtin said she and her four coaches focus on building skills, improving times and emphasize creating a positive team environment. “We’re kind of here to make sure that people want to love the sport of swimming,” she said. She also recognizes the value of swimming as a life skill.
“It’s important just in terms of safety. Making sure that you feel confident in the water is a huge thing for younger kids,” Curtin said. “But as kids are getting older I think it’s really important to make sure that they feel comfortable knowing their own endurance, and making sure that they know what they’re capable of in terms of swimming long distances.”
Last season the Sharks were undefeated and came in second in the championship meet. This year the team has already won their first two meets against the Medfield Marlins on July 6 and Walpole on July 11. Curtin is excited about what’s ahead.
“I think this season is going to be a good one,” she said. “I’m hoping it will rival last season because we had a really good season last year. But we’ll see what happens.”
For more information and a schedule of meets go to https://www.needhamsharks.com
Jeanne Hopkins was a Shark mom for four years when her own son swam for Needham’s team.