Heralding summer in Cherry Hill, poolside

Old Orchard Swim Club's Maureen Behm and Dan Thompson. About 150 families belong to the club.
Old Orchard Swim Club's Maureen Behm and Dan Thompson. About 150 families belong to the club. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 09, 2014

As a charter member of Cherry Hill's Old Orchard Swim Club, Bob Rueppel helped organize its first team and inaugurate a regional "Mini-Meet" for little swimmers.

That annual event - scheduled this year on Sunday, July 6 at Old Orchard - has offered some 13,000 girls and boys 9 and under their first taste of competitive swimming since 1969.

In 2009, it was renamed the "Bob Rueppel Mini-Meet."

Not bad for a city boy who couldn't swim a stroke until he was 50.

"I grew up in the Bronx . . . but my children swam, and were very good at it," says Rueppel, 79, as we chat poolside with club president Maureen Behm and board member Dan Thompson.

Set in a lovely grove of mature trees, Old Orchard has a $100,000 annual budget. A summer membership costs a family of four $662; about 150 families are on the rolls, compared with 300 in the early days.

Rueppel, Behm and Thompson agree: New leisure options, and a shrinking pool of young families with children, make competition for members much tougher. And two-career families can't simply drop younger kids off at a swim club, as they can at, say, a summer day camp.

"Old Orchard was a brand-new community when we moved here from Connecticut in 1966," says Rueppel, who was a district supervisor for what was then Manufacturers Hanover Trust.

"Everyone was between 25 and 35, with young children," he recalls. "The club was a great place to come to. I'd get back from a business trip and there'd be a note on the table, 'We're at the club.' "

Most of Cherry Hill's 13 private swim clubs were built during the great suburban development tsunami of the 1950s and '60s. Similar clubs opened elsewhere in Camden, Burlington, and Gloucester Counties as well.

But family-friendly oases named for township neighborhoods like Fox Hollow, Downs Farm and Kingston - each with their own teams, trophies, and traditions - have long been synonymous with summer in South Jersey's signature suburb.

And competitions among the Cherry Hill clubs, particularly for the coveted Cherry Bowl, help connect residents and neighborhoods across the sprawling township's east-west divide.

"The clubs are part of what the community is about," says Tim O'Connor, president of the Cherry Hill Association of Pools, which is working with the township to help the pools reduce costs.

"We recognize the importance of these clubs to the town," says Bridget Palmer, communications director for Mayor Chuck Cahn.

"The township is providing certain services, such as trash collection, and has reduced tax assessments on the clubs in recognition of what they provide to the community," Palmer says, adding that Cherry Hill encourages the clubs to cut costs through cooperative purchasing agreements.

The township clubs also are integral to the 36-member Tri-County Swimming Pool Association, says longtime association official Chris Brookover. Tri-County serves about 4,000 young swimmers, and its championship meet is the peak of the season.

Brookover is a coach at Old Orchard and the facilities manager at the Jersey Wahoos, an indoor pool and training facility in Mount Laurel that has long played a crucial role in South Jersey's vibrant competitive swimming scene.

"Some of the best swimmers are from South Jersey," says Brookover, 51, who credits the Mini-Meet with helping introduce kids to the joys of competition - but in a "friendly environment."

Indeed: There's a kickboard race for the little ones, and every child gets to bring home a ribbon.

"The event brings so much joy to so many young swimmers each year," says Thompson, 50, an insurance claims manager whose 12-year-old son swims for the Old Orchard Otters. "It's great for [local clubs] and the South Jersey swimming community."

"I grew up in Pennsauken, and we went to the Meadowbrook Swim Club, and I wanted my children to have that experience," says Behm, 40, who swam in the Mini-Meet as a youngster. Like her husband, Ted, Behm is a lawyer; the couple's three children, ages 7 to 11, are Old Orchard regulars.

To Rueppel, three of whose 14 grandchildren swim at Old Orchard, nothing can top the "togetherness, the enjoyment, the friendship" of a swim club.

"We have a tremendous bond that's built up over the years," he says. "The tradition continues."

And Rueppel is grateful to the persistence of his swimming teacher, the late Sue Mead, for easing him into the water at last.

"Before then," he laughs, "no one ever saw me in the pool. Except when it was time to paint it."


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