During his first-period broadcast Monday, the Norwood High athletic director Brian McDonough congratulated Will Higgins for breaking the meet record in the 50-yard freestyle the previous day at the Massachusetts South Division fall swimming and diving championships.
McDonough chose not to mention that it was a girls swimming championship.
“I didn’t want to get into that,” he said.
Anthony Rodriguez, another boy on the Norwood girls team, heard a grace note in McDonough’s omission.
“If people hear that you set a record, they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s awesome,’ ” Rodriguez said. “But if they knew you were competing against girls, they wouldn’t have as much respect for you.”
Higgins, a senior, and Rodriguez, a sophomore, are among roughly two dozen boys competing on girls teams in Massachusetts because their schools do not have boys swimming programs. They are able to do so because of the open access amendment to the state constitution, which was voted into law in the 1970s and mandates that boys and girls must be afforded equal access to athletics.
Boys have been members of girls swim teams since the 1980s, but until recently they were mostly a sideshow. It has only been in the last year or two that boys have swum well enough to draw attention — and people’s ire. The epicenter of the debate is the 50-yard freestyle, an event in which strength can trump talent or technique.
At the Division I state championships on Saturday at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there are eight boys in the 28-swimmer field in the 50 freestyle. Although Norwood’s Higgins was ruled academically ineligible Friday and will not compete at the state meet, two of the top four seeds in the 50 freestyle are boys, giving rise to the possibility that a boy could be the girls state champion.
Sarah Hooper, a senior at Needham High who is the fourth-fastest female entrant, finds the situation difficult to swallow.
“It’s really frustrating to see how athletic directors and school administrators aren’t doing anything,” she said. “They really aren’t advocating for us. I understand there isn’t an opportunity for these boys, but it infuriates me that they can’t combine two schools’ boys to create one team or have them compete in separate heats. The way it is now, the boys are taking recognition away from girls who have worked hard and deserve it.”
In addition to the 50 freestyle, many of the boys also compete in the 200-yard freestyle relay. At the state meet, the top-seeded relay team, from Walpole, includes two boys, Bobby Gay and Christian Kelley. Although people have been fixated on the boys, Jessica Suave turned in the fastest split during one of the relay team’s recent victories.
With every stroke they take, the boys are displacing more than water. They could knock girls off the awards podium and make it harder for girls to qualify for All-Star honors and the postseason. Perhaps predictably, they also are altering the dynamic on the pool deck, with swimmers lining up to cheer not just for their teams but for their gender.
“Absolutely, it has changed the atmosphere on the pool deck,” said Marilyn Fitzgerald, the longtime swim coach at Andover High, a perennial powerhouse. At her sectional meet last week, she added, “Coaches on the pool deck last weekend were going bloody out of their minds.”
Cooler heads are not found in the bleachers. At the Bay State conference meet earlier this month, Hooper’s father, Eric, lost his composure after watching her get beaten by boys. While waiting for her after the race, he said to her male competitors, “Good job for beating the girls.”
Eric Hooper was reprimanded by Needham High administrators, who told him not to attend the sectional meet. But he will be in the stands at the Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center on M.I.T’s campus to watch his daughter compete in the 50 and 100 freestyle events.
“It was wrong of me to say what I did,” Hooper said. “I was just frustrated, basically, because I feel it is totally inappropriate for boys who are bigger and stronger to be competing against girls.”
Boys swimming is held in the winter, when pool space is limited and expensive to rent, which is a deterrent for many schools. Athletic directors say the sport is not as popular among boys as it is girls, making it hard to field full squads. Some schools in the winter offer coed swimming, where boys and girls compete side-by-side in the dual meets and then separately in the postseason.
Over the years, there have been girls wrestling on boys teams or playing football or ice hockey. Boys have been on field hockey teams and girls have competed alongside boys in golf.
But in wrestling, boys and girls of the same weight compete against each other. And in field hockey and other team sports, a boy on a girls team achieves success through cooperation and collaboration with his teammates. When Higgins won the 50 freestyle at the South Division sectional meet, he did so at the expense of Kate Vanasse of Westwood High, who was second.
Kim Goodwin, the Norwood coach, said she was an opponent of boys competing with girls before she had boys on her team. Then her opinion changed. She saw the boys, who did not participate in other sports, develop self-confidence and mature.
“They work so incredibly hard in the pool, and they seem really grateful to be on the team,” she said.
Higgins’s winning time of 23.96 was a personal best by one second. He broke the girls’ sectional record, set in 1985 by Cynthia Kangos of Wellesley, by 14-hundredths of a second. (The boys’ sectional record is 21.40.)
Goodwin said an uncomfortable silence settled over the pool deck when the results flashed on the scoreboard.
“I was torn,” she said in an e-mail. “I was so happy for Will that he went a best time, but I was worrying about the reaction when he received his award. I told him, ‘If you hear any boos, just ignore them and be happy with what you accomplished.’ ”
The next day, Kangos, now Cynthia Baker, received a phone call from a Wellesley administrator who told her about her record being broken. “Wow,” she said. “That’s great.” Then she was told the new record holder was a boy, and she grew angry.
“I’ll be upset if they give him the record,” said Baker, who earned a swimming scholarship to Alabama.
She added: “There’s a reason these records are girls’ records. If there was no difference in boys’ strength, then it would be a unisex record. It’s really not fair. The more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t believe it.”
Paul Wetzel, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, said the state’s swimming committee would meet after the season, and among the topics on the table would be Higgins’s record swim.
“They are going to look for ways to deal with a boy holding a record in a girl’s sport,” he said, “Because sooner or later, I guess, some boy is going to come along and be the fastest swimmer.”
Rachel Moore of Andover is the top female swimmer in the state. At the North Division sectional meet, Moore, who plans to swim at Virginia on a swimming scholarship, was timed in a state-best 23.42 in the 50 freestyle.
But she will not swim the event at the state meet. Instead she will race in the 100 backstroke and 100 butterfly.
“I was not going to put her in the 50 free just to satisfy everyone who wants to see Rachel beat the boys,” Fitzgerald, Moore’s coach, said.
Fitzgerald said she hoped a girl prevailed in the race, but saw a silver lining in a boy triumphing.