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All in the pool together

Walpole High swim team is coed, and Division 1

Emily Muller of the Walpole High School swim team practices at Blue Hills Regional Technical School in Canton with her team. At left, Walpole coach Cheryl Cavanaugh directs her team at the practice. Emily Muller of the Walpole High School swim team practices at Blue Hills Regional Technical School in Canton with her team. At left, Walpole coach Cheryl Cavanaugh directs her team at the practice. (Photos by Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Colleen Casey
Globe Correspondent / November 13, 2011

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Christian Kelly and Bobby Gay grew up swimming for the Barracudas, the coed swim program in Walpole.

Now seniors at Walpole High, Kelly and Gay are swimming for the third straight fall with the varsity girls’ team because the school does not field a coed squad during the winter season.

And because of their presence, and contributions, Walpole will be competing as a Division 1 program at the sectional meet this afternoon at Harvard’s Blodgett Pool, and also in next week’s All-State meet at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“We basically all knew each other, but I didn’t know if they’d accept me,’’ said the 17-year-old Gay.

“I thought it might be awkward but it wasn’t. They were pretty accepting.’’

A lifeguard during the summer, Gay gave up soccer to focus on swimming after he was told by coach Cheryl Cavanaugh that he could be a member of the team.

His only option: Swim during the fall season.

The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association “told us we could move to the winter and be a coed team,’’ said Cavanaugh. “We can’t move to the winter because there’s no pool space [at Blue Hills Regional in Canton].

“We don’t have our own facility. We have to rent and this place is booked. All the other facilities around are booked. There’s nowhere for a coed team to go.’’

The last two years, their presence was not an issue. Gay and Kelly swam in second heats, and their points were not counted.

“They wanted to swim for colleges and find out what their scores were,’’ said Cavanaugh, in her 30th season as coach.

“I let them swim in the second heat so they wouldn’t be swimming for points against the other teams. They agreed with that and their parents agreed with that.’’

This year, however, the MIAA ruled that even if boys do not swim for points, because they are on the roster, the schools must compete at the Division 1 level.

“The first two years I didn’t count,’’ said Gay. “I was happy I got to race for times but I wanted to really be a part of the team. This year I did.’’

Gay said that there has been opposition to him competing against the girls.

“All the meets, no one really said anything, until the biggest meet,’’ he said, referring to the Bay State Conference meet last Sunday at Wellesley College, when a parent yelled at Gay after the Rebels won a relay race.

He took more heat afterward.

“He waited outside the meet for me and my mom and when we walked by he made a snickering noise and said, ‘Are you proud you beat a girl?’ ’’ he recalled.

Gay said the incident made him want to win even more. “I’m not going to stop just because some guy gets mad,’’ he said.

Kelly also started swimming for the Rebels as a sophomore.

“I did the Walpole town team in the summer and winter I thought it’d be great to improve my times,’’ said Kelly, who is hoping to swim in college next season. “Our practices for high school are a lot harder than with the rec team.

“I don’t feel like I have an advantage. I still lose in a lot of events. I’ve lost for the past two years.’’

He did win the 100-freestyle at the BSC meet in 55 seconds.

Cavanaugh said, “If we weren’t winning, this boy thing wouldn’t matter.’’ The Rebels did win the BSC’s Herget title the last two years without receiving any points from Gay or Kelly.

“I love having the boys swim with us and count for points,’’ said captain Christine Drogan. “We’ve known them for a long time from school and the town team, so it wasn’t awkward.’’

Samatha Pomer said she was happy to see the boys’ hard work actually count.

“It must have been frustrating for them last year not being able to score points for the team and having to sit on the sidelines,’’ said the senior captain.

This year, the Rebels felt it was time to allow Gay and Kelly to contribute.

“We decided amongst our team to get them in there,’’ said Cavanaugh. “I thought if they can beat the girls’ times, then they’ll get in there and swim.

“And they did so. They’ve been assets to our team since.’’

Senior Becky Idman does not mind the move up to Division 1.

“I think it will be hard but I love having the guys as a part of the team,’’ said the captain. “It’s just a new challenge. Everyone is working harder.’’

Cavanaugh concedes that the current setup is a huge disadvantage for the girls, because boys are physically “bigger and stronger.’’

“Hopefully, someday the MIAA will straighten this out in a way that’s fair for everybody,’’ said the coach. “It would be sad to see six guys getting up in the top of a girls championship or conference meet and not having any girls in there. That’s what it could come down to.’’

Her solution: Run a second heat for boys that counts, just like in the winter season.

“If we had a boys’ team they’d swim against boys, but we don’t. This is the best thing for them.’’ said Cavanaugh.

Gay added, “I get why people get mad; it’s a girls’ team. But they have to see it’s my opportunity too, to do what I want to do. I love swimming.’’