I lost, says the little boy as he climbs from his pool lane, and he folds his shoulders in like bat wings.
No, no! says the timekeeper. You did great!
I came in third, insists the boy, and he stomps off over grass dotted with scuffed sneakers that stand empty, laces still tied, over dropped shorts with their open legs surrounding un-peopled sandals, and around overturned water bottles.
For generations - first at the old pool, then at the Olympic-size one completed 10 years ago - Hartford's children have been coming to Goodwin Park to learn to swim - and to win and lose, and today is their championship.
People who know the pool alternately call Hartford's summer swim program a jewel, a treasure and an island in a city sorely in need of some magic. In the middle of low test scores, disappointing politicians and suburbanites who look the other way, Danielle Hodge stands ready.
Hodge is Goodwin's head lifeguard; she began swimming here as a girl, when she'd walk over from her house. She worked her way up to lifeguard, then head lifeguard, and she's still here, clipboard in hand, at age 40.
During the school year, she teaches fourth-graders at Kennelly School, and then on the last day of class, she kicks off her heels and steps into flip-flops to organize pool programs and schedule shifts of lifeguards - most of whom started here as pool rats, like her.
In 1996, Hodge moved to South Windsor, where she and her husband are raising their two sons, but it's hard, she says, to move your heart out of Hartford. In the 'burbs, Stop & Shop is far, far away, and when she first moved, she wondered, without the flickering street lights of the city, how suburban children knew when to go home.
If Hartford schools lag behind their suburban counterparts in significant ways, here's one way the city is far ahead, said Hodge: All city high schools have swimming pools, as do two of the middle schools.
All anyone has to do to swim in a Hartford municipal pool in the summer is show up. There is no fee, not for swimming, not for lessons.
At 15, Kory Ramos-Mills has been swimming at Goodwin for nine years. This year, he's moved into the older, competitive crowd, and when he pulls himself out of the water after one disappointing race, he mumbles something to his mother, Millie Ramos, who retorts, "You are 15. What do you think?"
Parents, whose work ID tags hang from their belts, are stealing time to be here this late afternoon, and Ramos and her husband, Gregory Mills, are lifers. They've been cheering their kids here forever.
Their friend, Migdalia Cruz, is a lifer, third generation. Cruz brought her daughters to swim here, and one became a lifeguard. Now she brings a granddaughter and grand-niece. She is one of the few spectators who stays seated. Both girls are 12; she doesn't want to show favoritism.
Meanwhile, the other spectators watch a meet with the same vigorous intensity with which they exist in the capital city. While their loved ones cut through the water in the lanes below, spectators follow alongside, bent over and shouting.
"Kick! Harder!" a father shouts to a child, and the child does.
Tots who wander down from the nearby playscape weave their fingers through the pool's gate and press their faces through the spaces. When you going to swim here? a father inside the gate asks. Next year? The child nods, eyes on the blue water.
Back and forth goes Hartford's future, up the lane and back again. At the end of one race, a boy bringing up the rear in the backstroke competition decides to stop just feet from the finish. Lifeguard Edwin Acosta calls into a bullhorn: "Hey, let's clap it up for him! Clap it up!"
The kids clap, the swimmer finishes, and the kids keep clapping. There is no talk of losing.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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