WALNUT CREEK -- The Woodlands Cabana Club is not too different from most local swim clubs. Its wooden and stucco buildings flank two large pools and one baby pool, and it's the local hangout for recreational swimmers and nearby residents who like to swim laps, take a dip to cool off on a warm summer afternoon, or just visit with friends.
But this humble little gathering spot in the Woodlands neighborhood of eastern Walnut Creek is also home to one of the premier recreational swimming events in the nation, and last weekend, 17 teams from throughout Contra Costa County with more than 1,000 swimmers descended on the club for the 50th Woodlands Invitational Swim Meet.
At half a century, the meet is older -- by about 20 years -- than the next oldest such area swim meet, said Head Referee Mark McDonald. And he should know, as he has been refereeing this meet and other elite meets in Northern California -- not to mention at a collegiate level at Cal -- for nearly three decades.
"If you asked, I'm sure any team in California -- even the entire country -- would come to this meet," he says. "The level of swimming is so high, and the meet is so well-run, it has a great reputation in the swim community. Contra Costa County is known as a hotbed of swimming, and this is one of its elite meets."
The meet stands out for three main reasons, McDonald said -- its longevity, the level of competition and, perhaps most importantly, the community traditions that have been carried down through at least three generations.
Scheduled just three weeks before the Contra Costa County Championship Swim Meet, the meet offers a chance for the county's top recreational swimmers to see their competition and make any last-minute fixes needed to better their times.
Throughout the years, many Olympians have participated in the meet -- as swimmers, water polo players and even rowers -- and McDonald says he's sure he'll see some future Olympians this weekend.
"Every year we see records shatter," he says. "It's pretty amazing."
But perhaps the most amazing thing about the Woodlands Invitational is what happens outside of the pool.
Whether it's cleaning the bathrooms at the club, painting the coaches' shed or tossing water balloons, the parent volunteers, the neighborhood support and the traditions haven't changed much in 50 years.
No one knows that better than Nick Knueppel, who was director of the event in 1983 and 1984. This year, the Woodlands resident is back in a new capacity -- swim grandpa, as his grandchildren are members of the team. His daughter and son-in-law, Liz and Tom Chaffee, are co-directors of the meet.
"Things have changed, yet they haven't," he says. "It's still all about the community getting together to make it happen." His wife Caroline agrees. "It's the traditions that hold this together as much as the swimming."
Liz Chaffee remembers being a teenage swimmer and watching the neighborhood moms walk around a dining room table, compiling the programs for the meet, as sort of annual collating party. Finals sheets were hand-typed in the coaches' shed, and ran off on a Xerox copier at some parent's office in the Shadelands Business Park.
Woodlands resident Carolyn Hiland is also a two-generation mom, as her two granddaughters are now Woodlands Swim Team members. She and husband Richard ran the invitational for seven years back in the late 1980s.
"It's different, but it's the same," she says. "Certainly things have become computer-automated, and someone invented EZ-ups," she laughs. "In the old days, we used umbrellas, and had to borrow chairs and benches from the local elementary and middle schools so we'd have enough seating for the swimmers."
But like the Knueppels, she says that the traditions have stayed.
Perhaps the most important one, at least for the swimmers, is the fact that the teenage swimmers on the Woodlands Swim Team get to sleep out at the club the two nights of the meet, ostensibly to "protect the turf" from rival swim clubs.
But the sleepovers -- which of course turn into all-nighters -- are a big bonding opportunity for the team, says Head Coach Colin Horan, and in past years they've been treated to late-night barbecues, bands and even a hypnotist to come entertain them.
As the youngest of five siblings -- all of who have coached the Woodlands Swim Team at one time or another -- Horan grew up with the Invitational as part of his summer. "I remember being so envious of the older swimmers for getting to sleep out at the club," he says. Of course, once he was able to do that, he was juggling racing and then coaching, and he realized it's a lot harder than it sounds.
"No matter how much sleep I get -- or don't get -- I still have to be the coach the next day."
The meet is the main fundraising effort of the Woodlands Swim Team, and every family on the team -- numbering more than 130 -- has to help out, whether their child is swimming or not.
Caroline Knueppel doesn't think that's ever been a problem.
"The thing is, every family wants to help out at Invitational. It's part of the fabric of the community," she said. "We made the mistake, our first year on the team, of scheduling a vacation over Invitational weekend. People looked at us like we were crazy. We didn't do that again."
Co-director Patti Leigh said she is overwhelmed by the support of parents, including the WEE Team, a group of dads who act as on-site janitors, traffic cops and maintenance crew for the entire two-day meet.
"The best part of running the meet is watching how everyone steps up and works hard to make sure the meet runs well," she says."It is also amazing to hear how many people stop us to tell us that this is their favorite meet of the year. Receiving thank you's from parents, coaches and directors of other teams after a successful weekend is a great feeling."
That will come later though; for now, it's all about scores of parents scrubbing down the kitchen, cleaning the pool decks and making sure the digital scoreboard works. It's not glamorous stuff, especially for one of the foremost youth swimming events in the country. But the Woodlands neighborhood wouldn't want it any other way.