“To be in the water on a day like this, you have to want it,” said Margaret Chibookian, head coach of North Bergen’s swim team for 5 to 18-year-olds. The Gators were beginning their first practice in late June. The air temperature at the North Bergen municipal pool was a brisk 62 degrees but the water was warmer, approximately 75 degrees.
So far, the team has competed in three meets against swim teams from other Hudson County towns. As one of a number of North Bergen Recreation sports teams, the Gators compete in matches throughout the summer. July 30 will be the league’s championship, to be held at the Union City pool.
During the school year, Chibookian assists Mike Scerbo in coaching the North Bergen High School swim team. This is her first year as the head coach for the Gators. The first practice, she said, was to get the team adjusted to their age groups and get them familiar with their coaches.
“It’s organized chaos,” she said.
The kids in the township say being on the team helps them develop their athletic skills.
Stephanie Rivas, 9, began swimming when she was 4 years-old and won first place in her first competition. Stephanie, who is a member at the North Bergen pool, loves to swim so much that when boredom strikes at the pool, she asks the lifeguards if she can swim laps with them.
“We’ve got a bunch of kids that show a lot of promise.” – Coach Gennaro Sirianni
“She’s always been swimming and she doesn’t stop,” said mother Gioconda Rivas. “She likes the challenge.”
Another young swimmer is Jade Torrisi who learned to swim two years ago when she was asked by her parents if she wanted to join the team. She’s involved in various sports, including soccer, basketball, tee ball, cheerleading, and now the swim team.
The children’s coaches have all competed on the North Bergen High School swim team and are CPR certified. This year, they include Esaul Helena, Irene Hernandez, Kiara Ramos, Gennaro Sirianni, Megan Wofsy and sister Lilli Wofsy. Each one is assigned to a lane in the pool when the kids practice.
“I could not do this on my own, this is why the [coaching] team I picked this year had to be the best,” said Chibookian.
The children practice with their age group.
“These are the more skilled advanced swimmers,” said Chibookian. “They can do a lot more and I expect more of them. If I see another child that can swim in lane one and keep up with them I will move them over. That’s what today is all about.”
A career swimmer
Chibookian was once a student in St. Joseph’s High School in West New York and coached by Scerbo. She continued swimming in college as well. Once her college years were behind her, she came back to her roots in Saint Joseph’s as head swim coach for the girls while Scerbo coached the boys’ team. After Saint Joe’s closed in March of 2009, she started working with the team at the county’s public school, High Tech High School. When High Tech’s sports teams were eliminated for funding reasons, the students became part of the North Bergen High School swim team.
Although Saint Joe’s is closed down, the NBHS students use the pool in the building during winter.
Preconditioning for The Gators was done at the Union City pool, two months prior to the first practice. It was an eight-week program, held every Tuesday.
“We preconditioned them to get them ready for the summer team,” said Chibookian.
Now they are preparing for more competitions, but not everyone can make every meet.
“Because it’s summer, I don’t expect them to all show up on the same day for all the meets because kids go on vacation…they have different things going on…,” said Chibookian. “There are so many kids that can swim because it’s done by age group. Everybody will get to swim at least one meet.”
“We’ve got a bunch of kids that show a lot of promise,” said Sirianni. “By the time they get to high school, they should all be really good, especially with a coach like Margaret. Swimming’s two parts heart, one part obsession, [and] H2O.”
Vanessa Cruz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org