There’s a sweet irony in the notion that the ancestral swimming hole of Delaware’s first native Olympian is a tiny club known in some quarters of the North Brandywine Swim League (NBSL) as “Timbertub.”
Wilmington Charter grad Andrew Gemmell is a long-distance specialist, qualifying for the 2012 London Games by finishing first in the 1500 meter freestyle event in the US trials. What’s more, Gemmell is also among the world’s best in open water.
This is a wonderful thing for those of us who spent summers at the little swim club called Timber Lane tucked back within the Shellburne/Liftwood neighborhood off of Shipley Road and (the other) Baynard Boulevard. In my era, Timber Lane was the only club in the NBSL that didn’t host swim meets due to its short length – it was shy of the regulation 25 yards – as well as its odd shape – it narrows in the deep end. Thus the pejorative, “Timbertub.”[i]
Back to the Gemmell connection. Timber Lane is Andrew’s home pool, as it was for his father Bruce, head coach for the Delaware Swim Team. Bruce was a local legend in the 1970’s who dominated NBSL competitions and went on to be a high school champion at Mt. Pleasant and then a Big Ten star at the University of Michigan. Gemmell père was himself a qualifier for the Olympic trials in 1980 and 1984.
Timber Lane is also the place where my dad has been a member for 50some years, which must make him the longest bond-holder in club history.
On a recent visit, I checked out the record board and the Gemmell name is everywhere. Bruce still owns the oldest team record, dating back to 1975.
Bruce Gemmell came up in something of a glory era of the NBSL, where many of the league’s top swimmers also trained during the winter with Delaware Sports Hall of Famer Bob Mattson at the Wilmington Aquatic Club (WAC) in New Castle (now home of the Delaware Swim Team and part of the Delaware Swim and Fitness Centers owned by State Representative Mike Ramone). Remarkably, not a few of these NBSL stars were Mt. Pleasant Green Knights including national champions Jenny Franks[ii], Eric Ericson[iii] and, later, Seth Van Neerden[iv] and Barbara Harris.
Washington lawyer JC Boggs, recently featured on TSD for his “50 states in 50 years” self-challenge, was a 1970s NBSL Green Acres guy.
The NBSL was then, and is today, a unique network of community pools threaded throughout the neighborhoods of Brandywine Hundred east of Concord Pike that for generations have served as a centerpiece of summer action for thousands of families and would-be Olympians like Andrew Gemmell.
Among Andrew Gemmell’s records on the Timber Lane board is one from his eight-and-under season. Keen-eyed readers of this column may notice a familiar name a few rungs below. Yours truly had the good fortune to be a weak-link on a swift relay team that still holds a team record, now going on 36 years. The good news for Delaware and the US Olympic Team is that it turns out this was the peak of my swimming career and just the beginning of Andrew’s.[v]
[i] There is some dispute over why the pool has its small, irregular shape. One theory is that with granite boulders lining the banks of the Shellpot Creek, the pool could not be carved as an honest rectangle. At some point along the way, perhaps in the early 1990s, Timber Lane broke with its self-imposed tradition and began hosting meets.
[ii] At 16, Franks broke the US record for the 400-meter individual relay.
[iii] An All-American at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
[iv] Van Neerden was a national champion, the premier American breast stroke swimmer in the 1990s. Van Neerden and Franks both swam for Arden.
[v] The fact that I share even a fourth of a Timber Lane record is a matter of unending consternation among my sisters. All six of them were much better swimmers and each acquired far more NBSL blue ribbons than I, so my skimpy “achievement” is to their everlasting chagrin. It was indeed my good fortune in our nation’s Bicentennial – besuited in Mark Spitz’s legendary red, white and blue stars and stripes Speedo – to ride the wake of three other excellent swimmers.