Making Waves: How SAIL Unites Greenville County

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What do summer swim meets and civic engagement have in common? In Greenville County, the answer is SAIL. For 60 years, the Swim Association Invitational League (SAIL) has brought together swimmers, families, and volunteers from across the county for friendly competition and community building. In this episode, we dive into the history and impact of SAIL with Chris Abdella, current SAIL president, and Peter Pistolis, past president and former SAIL swimmer. Discover how this beloved summer tradition fosters a sense of belonging, teaches valuable life skills, and strengthens the civic fabric of Greenville County. Tune in to learn how a neighborhood swim league can create ripples of positive change that extend far beyond the pool.

Links:

SAIL Website

Transcript

Katy Smith:
When you think of a swimming pool in the summer you may imagine a pool float and a cold beverage and a book. But for 60 years, for tens of thousands of swimmers and families in Greenville County, summer swimming means twice a day practices with friends, volunteering on the pool deck and screaming your heart out for your neighbors racing in SAIL or the Swim Association Invitational League. This Greenville County, South Carolina phenomenon brings children and families from across Greenville County together for friendly competition, friendship building and volunteerism and welcomes everyone from the beginning swimmer to Olympic contenders. I’m Katy Smith with Simple Civics: Greenville County, and on this episode, I talk with Chris Abdella, the volunteer president of SAIL, and Peter Pistolis, past president of SAIL, about what the league is, their experiences as a swimmer, as parents and community members, and how vital things such as SAIL are to build civic engagement. The moral of this story is find a way to get involved with your neighbors to have fun, get things done, and support the next generation of our community. We’ve put links on the episode page for more information about SAIL. Well, here we are midsummer, which is a very exciting but very tiring time for the thousands of SAIL swimmers and parents. And I am thus so glad to be here with Chris Abdella and Peter Pistolas, who are dedicated leaders in the summer sail swimming movement. They’re here to talk to us today about the joy of summer swimming. Thanks so much to both of you for joining us.

Chris Abdella:
Thanks for having us.

Peter Pistolis:
Yeah, thank you for having us very much.

Katy Smith:
So let’s start with an overview. The thousands of parents and kids and probably tens of thousands of former swimmers know very well the experience of swimming for SAIL. But for those who don’t know it, Chris, can you start off by telling us what is SAIL?

Chris Abdella:
SAIL is the Swim Association Invitation League. And currently, it consists of about 37 pools in the upstate, with more looking to join over the next couple years, and roughly over 5,300 swimmers this year alone. SAIL started back in 1964 with just four pools, Stone Lake, McCarter, Botany Woods, and Chetsu. Back then, there was about 300 swimmers. So fast forward to now, it is a huge platform for six-year-olds to 19-year-olds to just have fun with our Summer Swim League in our neighborhoods. On Thursdays, when we usually host our meets, there’s anywhere from, I’d say, Peter, correct me if I’m wrong, 30 to 50 volunteers per swim meet.

Peter Pistolis:
At least, yeah.

Chris Abdella:
At least. So you’re talking 1,000 to 1,500 people a week volunteering time on a hot Thursday afternoon after work, after school, to just have a lot of fun.

Katy Smith:
It’s such an amazing experience. And it’s been going on for now 60 years. Peter, SAIL is celebrating its 60th anniversary. Can you go back in time and tell us how SAIL was started?

Peter Pistolis:
I was not around 60 years ago. I am not that old. But like Chris was saying, it started in 1964 with just four pools in the local area, there’s nobody who’s looked at as being the person who founded SAIL, but the person that everybody gives credit to, his name was Willard Metcalf. In the 60s here in Greenville, he was head of the Parent Youth Association with different types of sports in the Greenville area and trying to create communities in that realm. It grew very quickly. It gained traction very, very fast from back then to where just three years later, they went from four pools to 10 pools in there, which was Botony Woods, Cropstone, Gower, Greville Country Club, McCarter, McForest, Northside Gardens, Stone Lake, Wadehampton Gardens, and Wellington Green. At the end of the season in 67, that’s when they started actually really coming up with the rules, the regulations, and the bylaws that have governed SAIL since for the last 60 years. The person who was in charge of kind of creating the bylaws and who’s credited with that was Jane Calloway. She was actually the first quote-unquote, SAIL president as it was going. And once that was created, it grew very, very quickly after that from starting with four pools in 1964 to 10 pools in 1967 to 21 pools in 1975, 26 pools in 1984, and now, as Chris said earlier, the 37 pools that are associated with SAIL. Every year, it’s been growing and growing and getting more involved with everybody around in this league.

Katy Smith:
So the three of us are all SAIL parents. We’ve had swimmers. And Peter, you yourself were a SAIL swimmer as a kid. Chris, you were not, right?

Chris Abdella:
I was not, no.

Katy Smith:
But I think if you have not experienced it, it may be a little hard to picture. So I would love for each of you to describe to a listener who hasn’t been a part of this summer swimming phenomenon. What is it like? What is it like as a kid? What is it like as a parent, a neighbor? What’s the experience?

Chris Abdella:
Peter, you were the one who swam it first, so I’d love to hear yours before I give you my outsider’s information.

Peter Pistolis:
So I started SAIL when I was, I think I was, my very first meet was when I was five years old and swam all through high school and actually even coached for a few years at Botany Woods after I’d graduated high school and now involved as a parent. To describe it, SAIL is SAIL. It’s something that’s extremely difficult to describe in just words without being able to participate in it, to see it, and even just spectate. Just to come and watch them on a Thursday afternoon in June, any neighborhood pool in Greenville County is going to be involved in this. But the memories that we had that I had made, I mean, I still remember my first swim coach when I was five years old. I actually still see him around Greenville to this day. He was actually the one who taught me specifically how to swim butterfly, which ended up for me growing up was my specialty stroke. And just to run into these people around town and see them and be able to have those types of memories. I still go to my parents’ house and see the team photos from 20 years ago. And just to see every year yourself grow up and your friends grow up through it, there’s nothing that can describe that with the memories and the friends that you make in that short time frame as well.

Chris Abdella:
So my story is definitely a lot different because of not being from the upstate. And we moved into Gower. I guess my daughter was probably three and we lived on the cul-de-sac here. And I remember, and it was a Saturday, so this was when divisionals was going on, which we knew nothing about swim team or anything. And when we woke up that morning and there were cars parked in our cul-de-sac and we could hear the noise coming from Gower Park.

Chris Abdella:
I put my daughter in the stroller and I told my wife, we’ve got to go see what’s going on at the pool. And my daughter was probably, I’m sure, three or four. And we walked over there. And like Peter said, it’s nothing like… you have to experience it. But it looked like a football game. People were tailgating. The entire Gower Park was full of cars. The cheering that was coming on from the stands inside the pool. And I really had no idea what was going on. And I told my wife, I was like, we have to be part of this. That year or that next year we joined what we call guppies, which is always, you know, what kids, what leads up to the big swim team. And my daughter has been swimming ever since then. It was her goal at the age of six to be a Gower swim coach. And this year was the first year that she was actually a big swim team coach and it’s just it’s built some of the best relationships that we have. Peter’s daughter and I…Peter’s daughter and my daughter are really good friends, they’ve swam together outside of SAIL. Just the people that you meet…

Chris Abdella:
It’s just it’s an unbelievable experience that you just have to be there see it feel it and for the parents and the kids to just go out there and have so much fun and compete so hard. And you know what? It doesn’t matter if you have a best time or if you’re finished first in your heat. When you have… Gower has the largest team. We have roughly 500 or so swimmers on our swim team. And when you get that many kids together and they’re just pulling for your neighborhood, fast forward it to high school. It’s like high school rivalries. It is so much fun. And you just you can’t explain it. You have to be part of it.

Katy Smith:
What I have seen of SAIL, and I grew up having a pool because I grew up in Florida, so I floated on a raft, but I had never been a part of competitive swimming in any way.

Katy Smith:
And just so if someone has never been to a swim meet, you know, you have the things you’ve probably seen on Olympic TV where you have, you know, freestyle, butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, relays, the medley relay, IM where someone does all the strokes. But any given swimmer, the max they can do is three events plus two relays. And that means you are going to be in the parking lot or the park for three or four hours for your child or for you yourself to swim maybe a total of eight minutes, depending on what events you’re in. Which for some people might sound like misery, but for clearly thousands of kids and their parents across the county, it is a time to build relationships. It is a time to learn some independence when you have to sit in your chair and be disciplined and eat your snacks and drink your drinks without your parents nearby, to learn how to listen to another grownup who is not your parent to make sure you’re acting right while you’re sitting in said parking lot, for doing your very best to not get disqualified and being so proud even if you came in last. If you’re a parent for making that machine run, just as Peter and Chris have said, by flipping burgers or hitting stopwatches or running cards or filling out ribbons. It is just one of the most awesome examples to me of just civic engagement and community come together to make something happen.

Katy Smith:
It’s just awesome. And to think of you two gentlemen in leadership to make it happen as volunteers, I can only imagine how much time it takes. It’s what makes our community great.

Peter Pistolis:
You hit it right there. You know, you’re talking about the time that you’re three into each swimmer can swim three individual events and two relays. And that’s the max, the cap that they’re allowed to in each meet.

Peter Pistolis:
So some of these meets, some of these meets can go four or five hours. Some of the bigger teams like Gower, they go even longer than that, especially when you get down to the divisionals, which is that big qualifying one where it’s five different teams from each division competing as one weekend to try to get that, to try to see if they can qualify for the big, when I describe it to people, the county meet is basically what it kind of is for SAIL when you get to championships and classics. The time frame between there when the parents get to hang out in that downtime it’s not just the kids creating their relationships with their friends underneath the tent you know I specifically remember playing uno was the huge thing to play when we were younger or slapjack or something like that and that’s what the parents promoted us to play was because it kept us still. It kept us in our chairs and it kept us underneath the tent where we didn’t get hot and get tired or anything like that. But as a parent, you’re creating those relationships and those friendships with the other kids parents themselves.

Peter Pistolis:
Like we always make the joke that it’s people who may not be in our neighborhood that we don’t get to see very often. But once SAIL gets started, it’s like great, there’s that friendship again, we get to go and hang out with them. And it’s like that. You know, when with school, like you feel like you’re back in school, it’s like, Oh, it’s, it’s summer break, I get to go hang out with my friends again and get to go do whatever I want. So it’s not just with the kids. It is with the parents creating that friendship and those memories as well. You get to see that.

Chris Abdella:
And when you see such a big event as a regular swim meet go on or divisionals, as Peter was saying, or even champs and classics, which is coming up on this Saturday and Sunday, the amount of people that are involved with it, the amount of fun that we have as those parents, like you said, setting that up. And when you see something of that magnitude run so smoothly, it’s fun to know that you’re part of it because yes, it is. There is a lot that goes into it. You know, we all have full-time jobs. This job is, it’s for the kids. It’s for us as parents to continue what’s been going on for 60 years. I don’t want to let anybody in my neighborhood down by not running a meet and running a fun meet and a safe meet and a fast meet because it’s been going on for so long. And to have somebody else to come and do that after us is just, it’s great having all these volunteers.

Katy Smith:
Yeah. Well, both of you mentioned your daughters knowing each other outside of SAIL. So I’m gathering your girls decided to swim outside of summertime and become more specialized in their swimming through something like Team Greenville at Westside Aquatic Center or YSSC in Spartanburg or the Kroc Center, which some kids do specialize and even go on to college or Olympic trials as a result. I wonder if you’re interested in sharing any success stories like that, but how those kids are still welcome in SAIL and why.

Chris Abdella:
That really hits home for me. My daughter, who is a rising senior, she’ll turn 17 in August. Like I said, sail swimming, Gower swimming started that love for swim for her. She moved on to Team Greenville when she was about seven and has been swimming ever since. She has currently committed to swim at Auburn in 2025, so we’re really excited about that. And then the relationship that she’s built. She’s gone to NCSAs in Indianapolis. She’s gone to meets all over the country. She does have a teammate that everybody knows about from the upstate, Lilla Bogner, who also swims at Stone Lake and Team Greenville, who did make it to the Olympic trials and actually finished third in one of her events. So, the value add for somebody starting off at SAIL swimming, you never know what it’s going to turn into later in life. I would have never thought that 10, 11 years ago, my daughter would be going to swim at a D1 school because of a summer swim league.

Katy Smith:
And what I think is really special… So congratulations to her and to you and to the many collegiate swimmers that we know from my children’s age group who started in SAIL. But what I think is really special is that they are all still welcome back on Summer Swim Team because it is not about them getting so good that they’re sweeping all their races, which I’m sure they are. But it’s really about valuing those neighborhood connections. That is why SAIL exists, is to celebrate neighborhood connections and fun with those summer friends.

Peter Pistolis:
And it’s, it’s what, what I’m seeing from a lot of these kids and what I’ve focused on specifically, at least with my daughter and I know I’m not the only one is, you know, my daughter doesn’t swim year round. She does SAIL throughout the summer. So yeah, she’s competing with the talent that Chris’s daughter is who do this and that’s their, their drive, their focus. And that’s their love and their passion. But what it teaches some of these kids who may not do it year-round is you still can have that drive. You still can have that accomplishment and you can still feel good about what you’re doing.

Peter Pistolis:
Because it’s the adage of you can never control who shows up or somebody else’s performance since this is an individual sport. Yes you have a team like where you have divisionals you can compete as a team but it is an individual sport in the in the in the long run. So you’re competing by yourself. You’re out there you’re racing the clock and you’re not racing necessarily everyone else so it’s, how good can you be personally… how better can you make yourself and not comparing yourself to others that are out there swimming. So that’s the big thing as well with some of these kids that it’s teaching them is… There is going to be somebody in life that’s always going to be better or faster than you. But what can you do to improve yourself and to make yourself better? Which I’m seeing that translate into my daughter’s other sports that she does because she doesn’t do swimming year-round. And for both of my daughters, actually, the competitiveness and the drive that they have in the other sports that they do, it all reflects. And SAIL is just confirming that and putting that harder into their minds and into their personalities as well.

Katy Smith:
That’s great. So this all is, you know, is great. But listeners might be thinking, well, Simple Civics: Greenville County is a podcast about local government and civic life. So why would we feature something so non-governmental such as the Summer Swim Weekend? Like, well, this is why I thought it was important to lift up is because there is so much research that shows that greater social cohesion leads to greater civic engagement and stronger communities. And I think that the volunteering, the depending on each other, the coming together for a cause, all of this leads to kids and adults understanding what it makes to make a community work. I would love to hear you both reflect on that a little bit about what SAIL has taught you, what it’s taught your kids about being part of a community, and how you think that translates to a healthy Greenville County.

Chris Abdella:
When I look back over the years, the relationships that have been built, you have business owners, you have stay-at-home parents, you have doctors, lawyers, TV personalities, you name it. The amount of people that we come in contact with to have fun, to promote our neighborhood, to promote this greater good, to teach my child humility when they lose, to want to be a better person and make Gower better or Botany Woods better or whatever the neighborhood is better, that’s powerful. And that’s fun. And Peter and I joke all the time about stuff with swimming, stuff outside of swimming. He shops where I work. This organization brings everybody together. We recently had SAIL night at the drive to celebrate 60 years. SAIL has not done that in quite a few years. And in working with the Greenville Drive, I personally didn’t know what to expect from the amount of people that we would have there. And this was the largest event that they had ever had when it comes to an organized event with a group. And it was amazing to see the amount of people that came out. And the kids had an amazing time walking on the field beforehand, throwing out the first pitch. And it’s just, you know, that step that we are taking to make Greenville better through something that’s just as much fun as summer swim is just is great.

Peter Pistolis:
I’ll piggyback on with what Chris said there. Yes, you’re swimming for your neighborhood, but that translates to that’s your community. That’s where you live. That’s what’s surrounding you. Those are the people who you’re seeing day in and day out. And these kids when they go and they get on that deck and they’re cheering each other on it’s to a level that I would put up against any, you know, crazy professional sports fan if they’re at their, whatever their favorite team’s stadium or arena is. I mean, even to the level of like, you want to talk about European soccer players and European soccer fans are some of the most crazy fans you will ever see out there if you ever watch one of those games. I will put a SAIL swim team up against them in regards to how wild and crazy they get to cheer on their friends and to cheer on their team. They’re painting their bodies in the color of their team.

Peter Pistolis:
Screaming and yelling to the point of where we’re there on the deck trying to help officiate this meet and we can’t even talk with each other standing right next to each other because they’re screaming so loud. You can’t hear each other. That’s the level that these kids are standing behind each other and cheering for each other. And with these larger teams, the other thing that these kids are doing, they’re cheering for their team as a whole, for their community as a whole. They may not all get along. You’ve got a bunch of teenage kids who have wild and crazy hormones up and down, who on any given day don’t like each other. And that’s life. That’s what you see any day you’re walking around. There’s going to be somebody that you may not agree with, you may disagree with on something or whatever, but you still got to work together. You still got to find a way to make things work. And that’s what these kids are getting to experience themselves as well. They’re cheering on their community because if the community doesn’t win, they don’t win. Yes, it’s an individual sport, but with SAIL, because of the way our point structure is made up, you’ve got to win as a whole if you really want to win as a team. So you’ve got to back each other up.

Katy Smith:
Yeah, such a great point. There are fewer and fewer ways it feels like that we can come together across neighborhoods, across, you know, parts of the community, like you said, Chris, knowing people that have all kinds of different jobs, all kinds of walks of life, and SAIL is a treat that we can not only come together, but do things together to make stuff happen. Well, if someone’s hearing this and they think, gosh, I would really like for my child to get involved with SAIL, some of it is driven by a neighborhood that you live in. But is there a way for folks to join a swim team if they’re not part of one already?

Peter Pistolis:
If they want to see what all 37 teams are currently involved in SAIL, we do have a website. It is sail.swimptopia.com. That’ll take them to the home page of SAIL itself and there is a long long list of any information that they may want to find. It has all the teams there that are associated with SAIL. If they want to look at reaching out to one of those pools, each pool is going to have their own website where they can see about trying to join that pool. Some pools are private where it is going to be, you have to live in the neighborhood. Some are, they allow outside memberships or just a full public pool. So it would be starting there. And if anybody is interested and has a pool and they want to see about becoming a part of SAIL, it is an invitational league, hence in the name itself. The executive board, they can reach out to any member of the executive board, which is listed on that website, that’s sail.swimtopia.com. There’s a subsection in there that’ll list out contact emails and phone numbers for any executive board member.

Peter Pistolis:
We would well open anybody reaching out to us if they’ve got any information or if they want to start the process or start conversations about that. As Chris was saying, I know for a fact, at least one for sure that’s really pursuing this, that has just built a pool that does meet the requirements that we would, that SAIL would be looking for. And they are starting to have the conversation and they have been for the last couple of years. So I see that happening in probably another year or so that we’ll probably go from 37 pools to 38 pools. And there’s others there’s around the area that we would love to be involved with it. We do like to keep it within Greenville County. We don’t want to go outside of the county. We do want to keep it close to there, it kind of helps us. We do want it to grow but we don’t want to grow so big where it can’t be… it’s significantly harder to maintain. We still do want to have that hometown, summer league that’s in Greenville County as it was through the history you know 60 years ago.

Katy Smith:
And you heard Chris talk about Gower being the largest pool, but there are multiple divisions, red, purple, white, all different sized pools. So you can have a smaller community that can be a part of a division that makes sense for you and that your couple dozen kids can have a great time swimming with their friends. So if you are part of a community pool or a public pool and want to join, please do reach out because I know they’d love to expand the ranks of swimmers in Greenville County. Well, Peter and Chris, as a SAIL parent and someone who has been a part since they were four, I think, and are now 20, I just thank you for the gift of your volunteerism. And to all the thousands of parents, I was one of them who has timed or flipped a burger or run an award ribbon for making this happen, because it truly is a way that a community can come together. And if you don’t have a swimmer in your house and you’re listening, I would just encourage you to find a way to get involved, because really, it’s when we volunteer to make our community great that Greenville County is the desirable place that we all love so much. So thanks to you both for your service and for joining us for this conversation today.

Chris Abdella:
Thanks for having us.

Peter Pistolis:
Yeah, thank you very much for having us. 

Catherine Puckett: Simple Civics: Greenville County is a project of Greater Good Greenville. Greater Good Greenville was catalyzed by the merger of the Nonprofit Alliance and the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. You can learn more on our website at greatergoodgreenville.org. This is a production of Podcast Studio X.

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