How do you swim without water?
It’s not the opening to a corny joke, but rather a riddle that Hermiston swimming coach Kevin Hamblin has been trying to solve since he took over the team in 2007. The town of Hermiston has no year-round swimming facilities. The team’s only real option involves commuting to Pendleton every day after school to use the Blue Mountain Community College pool for practice.
That’s 45 minutes on the bus there, 45 minutes back, leaving the Bulldogs with an hour in the water and a severe handicap on the season.
“You talk to any high school coach and if someone told them, ‘You can only practice for an hour a day and you have to travel 30 miles to do it,’ they’re going to say, ‘I can’t get a good program going,’ ” Hamblin said. “And they’d be right, you can’t.”
Practices often overlap with the Pendleton Buckaroos’ pool time, a no-no in the eyes of the Oregon State Athletic Association. The teams had to enter into a special agreement to allow them to share a facility. The teams can swim in the same waters together now, but still can’t work together. Regulations dictate that swimmers from each team aren’t even allowed to swim side-by-side if they’re doing the same stroke, Hamblin said.
The unique situation for the homeless Hermiston team keeps many athletes from signing up to wear swim caps each year. Many swimmers in the area choose not to get involved with the program, competing on their own privately throughout the year in leagues based in the Tri-Cities.
“A lot of people’s problem is they won’t come out for the team because of that bus ride,” said senior Austin Bentz, a 50-meter freestyle expert. “They don’t think it’s worth it.”
The Bulldogs that file off the bus five times a week are there because they want to be, junior swimmer Thomas Hamblin said, even with the steep disadvantages. Both the boys’ and girls’ teams took third at the Columbia River Conference district meet last season, but rising much higher than that seems almost impossible.
“There’s a huge amount of frustration,” said Hamblin, the coach’s son who competes in the 500-meter freestyle. “I see kids I’ve swam with that are the same age at meets and they’re so much faster than me. And there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Swimming is Hermiston’s most expensive sports program because of the travel aspect, athletic director Mike Kay said. The team receives some money from the school’s booster club but the majority of the estimated $5,000 they need to continue competing each year comes from fundraisers and donations. The Bulldogs have scraped around for cash anyway they can, even raking leaves this fall. That business model roles over into snow shoveling later on as well.
Parties interested in these services can contact coach Kevin Hamblin at (541) 571-5690.
Back on the bus, the team keeps from feeling discouraged by trying to stay busy. That can mean anything from homework time — which can only be done on the trip to Pendleton when there’s enough light before sunset — to just chatting and playing games. Bentz and Thomas Hamblin took naps on the ride recently while junior Cassie White flipped through Somebody Everybody Listens To, a novel by Suzanne Supplee.
“We get really in touch with our iPods,” the junior Hamblin said.
The Bulldogs are dealing with the adversity through acceptance, their coach said. Kevin Hamblin grew up a swimmer in Hermiston and said he coaches the team with the goal of giving students an opportunity for a lifetime sport. The endgame is getting in shape. He focuses his coaching for the players he has each winter, not the pool he doesn’t.
Because really what else could he do, the coach said.
“What’s my choice? Throw a fit and not have a swim team or else put up with it and do the best we can,” Hamblin said. “That’s the boat I’m in, even if it is a sinking boat.”