Once the screech of the opening whistle reverberated through the pool area, the school colors were the only way to recognize swimmers from Nation Ford and Fort Mill high schools.
The schools, rivals in the local sports community, cheered and encouraged one another during their swim meet Wednesday evening, onlookers from both schools following suit.
The intensity and aggression that are earmarks of the rivalry was nowhere to been seen; in its place was a shared passion for swimming and positive-minded competition.
Susan Trotter, whose seventh-grade son David competed in three events for Fort Mill, wouldn't have it any other way. She cited the individual nature of swimming as a reason for the class and enthusiasm on display at a typical meet.
"Swimming is all about self-improvement and beating your own best," she said. "You won't see any negativity at one of these meets. All these kids do is cheer each other on, which is wonderful to see as a sports mom."
The establishment of Nation Ford in 2007 divided Fort Mill's student body and created an instant sports rivalry. Former classmates found themselves competing against one another. Laurie Strohl, mother of Mason, a Fort Mill freshman, witnessed the birth of the rivalry firsthand as her son struggled to adjust to the changes.
"Last year when they split the eighth-graders up, two buses of kids went to Fort Mill and about four or five were sent to Nation Ford," Strohl said. "So many of my son's friends ended up going to Nation Ford, which was tough on him. But swim meets like these definitely help to keep everyone in touch."
For Donna Fairbanks, mother of Lucas who currently attends Springfield Middle School, the school split has the potential to be a positive thing for her son's social development.
"It will help him to meet a whole new group of people which is a valuable life lesson," she said. "But in terms of the rivalry, I don't think the split has necessarily divided the town like a lot of people think, and today's swim competition certainly proves that."
Maybe the most telling indication of a genuinely good-natured rivalry is the dynamic between coaches Lindsey Hawkins of Fort Mill and Meredith Cataldo of Nation Ford. Both are graduates of Fort Mill, and . they even competed on the same swim team.
Now, with the rivalry renewed for another season, the two coaches offered their perspective on how Wednesday's swim meet can be a positive footnote in the simmering feud between the two schools.
"They swim year round with one another, and they're friends in and out of the pool," Hawkins said. "I'd much rather have that over some awful rivalry where being enemies and not getting along gets ingrained in them. Meredith and I want our swimmers to be the best they can possibly be and be driven to win, but not to hate one another. They're meant to have fun out there."
"When I stepped in as coach I immediately knew that I wanted to keep the rivalry as respectable as possible since we all used to be in the same school program," Cataldo said. "Even though we're two different schools, we are part of the same Fort Mill community. We all live in Fort Mill, our kids go to Fort Mill school, and we're raised by Fort Mill parents. I emphasize this to my swimmers a lot."
When the final whistle blew, Fort Mill had won the meet 216-123. During the meet, Hawkins and Cataldo stood side by side, appearing more as the friends they truly are rather than the head coaches of crosstown rivals.